This blog post is written by anthropologist Kirsten Marie Raahauge. Kirsten Marie is associate professor and head of the Center for Interior Studies at the Royal Danish Academy. She is a member of the STAY HOME perspective panel[i].
Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Danish homes, this blogpost discusses the spatial zones and thresholds of privacy, focusing on the filtering of privacy in and out of homes and cities. It is suggested that the idea of privacy is under transformation along with changing spatial settings[ii].
I shall discuss the filtering of privacy in and out of homes and cities from the point of view of spatial anthropology. The discussion takes its point of departure in the theoretical perspectives on space of Frederik Stjernfelt, Peter Halley, and Michel de Certeau. Moreover, it is based on two of my fieldworks dealing with Danish homes of the upper middle class in the 2000s. In these projects, I focused on the interrelationship of space, things, and humans among well-off neighbourhoods in Aarhus (2001-2004), Sønderborg (2006), and Frederikssund (2006).
On Space, Homes, and Cities
In his article Locale, Street, Square, a Naïve Theory of the City from 2007, Frederik Stjernfelt outlines three basic categories of urban phenomenology and semiotics based upon the simple notion of a trajectory through a network of streets. The Locale is the figure that signifies the end goal: it is a blind alley or the place where you have reached your destination. This could be a bodega, where people stay for a long time, or your home. The Street is the figure that signifies space allowing you to move from A to B, passage spaces, such as a city streets or stairs, or a café where people go in and out. The Square is the figure that signifies a space for making decisions: should you go to the left or the right, or take another of the streets that meet here? Crossroads, entrances: It is the space of choice, and the place of pointing to civilization; it is here that a statue is placed, at the square, since it is here you have to stop and think and chose your way. In this scheme, the home acts as a locale, placed in the city-network of streets and squares, thus giving the impetus to get out and into the street or get back to the home. This theory is rather clear and offers an efficient apparatus for dealing with for example the filtering of privacy between cities and homes.
In the article The Crisis in Geometry from 1984, the artist Peter Halley suggests that the city is a system of cells and conduits; you drive from cell to cell in your car, which is another cell. Later, in the article On Line from 1985, Halley argues that devices such as TVs or computers change the ways of being in the city, since it is enough to sit at home and watch TV, making you stay in your physical cell, while at the same time allowing you to get out of it by way of imaginaries produced through the TV images. In recent years, a new aspect has emerged that might be added to these perspectives on the city-home-privacy-interrelations: Since it has become the norm to go out into the city while wearing ear pods and to use mobiles and other devices attached to the body, the city has changed. No matter whether on streets, where you flow along with other people, or in squares, where you are forced to make a decision, you can stay in your own private sphere and avoid blending into the commonness of the city. Without cars, you can move along the conduits without being outside the cell, since the private space of being secluded from strangers is secured by way of technology. In this way, ear pods and mobiles allow for new hybridizations of home and city, and for new ways of performing privacy. It has an enormous impact transforming the city as well as the home.
The Wandersmänner of the City
In 1984, in the famous chapter Walking in the City, Michel de Certeau suggests that the city is inhabited by Wandersmänner. They are using the small tactics of everyday life, turning this corner instead of that, stopping here or there, while the city planner is gazing at the city from an aloof strategic perspective, thereby overviewing the city, but also thereby seeing something entirely different than the city dwellers. Furthermore, Wandersmänner are not only walking in the concrete streets and squares; they are walking in the city of proper names. De Certeau writes:
“By a strange toponymy that is detached from actual places and flies high over the city like a foggy geography of “meanings” held in suspension, directing the physical deambulations below: Place de I’Etoile, Concorde, Poissonnière…these constellations of names provide traffic patterns: they are stars directing itineraries” (de Certeau 1984:102).
These proper names evoke memories and imaginaries, and one could add that it is unavoidable to be dreaming of other places. What is absent in the surrounding space is present as proper names of streets and squares; Oxford Street in London points towards Oxford, Place de Paris in Luxembourg points toward Paris in France. Today, nearly 40 years later, the pointing of proper names towards other sites beyond the horizon has been supplemented by billboards and posters. It awakens our desire for what is not present; it is absent, still it is there to dream of.
This tension between presence and absence is amplified by recent technological devices, ear pods, and mobiles that follow us and reshape the relationships between the city, the home, and other sites that are imagined and desired. At the same time, the technological devices restrict the city that you are actually situated in into a scene for being surrounded by your own private sphere. Furthermore, they restrict the home that you are situated in, changing your private sphere from the concrete spaces of the home to the digital spaces of technology.
The Fieldwork of the early 2000s
Looking back from this here-and-now situation, my fieldwork concerning Danish Homes in the 2000s seems far away and long ago. In these fieldworks, privacy filtered in and out of the homes in Aarhus, Frederikssund, and Sønderborg in ways that were rather analogous; privacy was filtered in and out of homes and cities through social relations. The technological devices that wire us up have changed the scene somewhat, turning the filtering of privacy between home and city through social relations in space into a filtering of privacy between home and city through technological devices working in a virtual space, which is also social, but less reliant on actual space. This new setting has made the boundaries between private and not-private less visible, and the private space more private. At the same time, those who are not online are excluded from the social exchange that might take place in the techno-social-privacy of mobiles and ear pods.
Seen from an anthropological point of view, one might argue that the relations which are taking place between city and home are relations of social exchange, as Marcel Mauss argued in 1924 in the seminal work The Gift. These relations have specific spatial settings. Furthermore, you exchange gifts, goods, help, rituals, food etc., and the giver has the upper hand, Mauss argues. It is always attractive to be the giver because the receiver is in debt to the giver. This is an impetus to become the giver and repay, hopefully giving a larger gift to the former giver, who now becomes a receiver. This exchange creates social relations, thereby becoming the engine of society. Exchange works globally, it is also the important factor in the fields where I worked in Denmark. Furthermore, in my fieldwork this exchange arguable functions as a carrier of privacy between homes and cities: much of the filtering that I noticed in my fieldwork happened through exchange of social relations, gifts, help etc.
Filtering Privacy in the 2000s
In Aarhus, the city came into the home by way of dinner invitations to guests from work and networks. The exchanges of dinner parties took place in the representational space inside the home, normally the dining room, which, in many cases, had a flappergasting view over the woods or the sea (Raahauge 2006). In this case, Stjernfelt’s locale became something else; possibly some aspects of the square (choices) and the street (people) were added. Privacy came into the city by way of the Saturday afternoon event of going to the city center: from home to city center and back home again. This weekly repetition of going to the city center in order to enjoy oneself was a structuring of time that was similar to a ritual. Normally, rituals are performed in order to change somebody or something from one phase to another, this ritual intendedly had no effect but stabilizing what was attractive, namely the continuation of everyday life, peace, and order. Using the city as a repetition of a good event, shopping and meeting your friends, exchanging café latte or wine at the same cafés Saturday afternoon, thus created a small space of privacy in the city. The city was invested with the feeling of Stjernfelt’s locale, although it happened in streets and squares, shops, and cafés.
In Frederikssund and Sønderborg, the city came into the home by way of neighbours (Raahauge 2007). They came visiting each other on a daily basis, having an open invitation, just walking in. In that way, the city came into the home, but even more the privacy of the home emanated out into the neighbourhood. Maybe it is wrong to say that the city came into the home, since it was only neighbours. Applying Stjernfelt’s notions may clarify this. The square aspects of choice were absent, while the street aspects of people were present inside the homes of the inhabitants. Furthermore, an abundant gift exchange was going on: “borrowing” sugar or eggs, coming over for a quick cup of coffee or a spontaneous dinner of home-smoked salmon, giving small presents such as plants for the garden or a jar of homemade jam. Privacy did not emanate into city in any large amount; the social exchange mostly stayed within the boundaries of the neighbourhood, maybe turning the neighbourhood into a huge locale, maybe hybridizing the street-with-people aspect and the locale but avoiding the square-and-choice-part.
Privacy or Privacies
In the cases of my fieldworks, two very different approaches to the home-city-privacy-relations were at work. Inviting colleagues to orchestrated dinners in specific representational rooms is different from having neighbours walking in and out of your home following a collective, open invitation. The distribution and character of “privacy” also differed, as did the rules of exchange. In Aarhus, there was a clear boundary between the home and the city, the neighbourhood being present but not very important. The imaginaries and the actions taking place at home and in the city were quite distinct, and homelife was kept discretely distanced from city life. In Sønderborg and Frederikssund, the boundary between home and neighbourhood was blurred. The neighbourhood played a major role while the city was not much present. The neighbourhood was a para-private area, where you felt at home and in your private comfort zone although eating smoked salmon in the neighbour’s garden or having a cup of tea in the kitchen of another neighbour.
Privacy between physical and virtual Space
These examples of filtering privacy in and out of homes and cities in different ways, spatially and socially make one wonder whether the notion “privacy” means the same in the two cases. In Aarhus, privacy could be understood as opposed to representation, which meant that it was intentionally isolated from the busy everyday life of work and representation. In Sønderborg and Frederikssund, privacy could be seen as extended to the neighbours, isolating the rest of the city from the para-privacy of the neighborhood. While the Aarhusian privacy is shielded from representational duties, the privacy performed in Sønderborg and Frederikssund is isolated from the rest of the city. Still, both fieldworks point towards spatial zones as important for establishing the sensation of privacy. Today’s walking in the city with your ear pods and mobile suggests a performance of privacy that is radically different from the two cases discussed: physical space and its organization is not decisive for the privacy of the Wandersmänner with mobiles and ear pods. Today, virtual space is connecting, separating, isolating, and filtering privacy in and out of our senses, in some ways rendering the space of the home, the neighbourhood or the city superfluous.
In Halley’s terms, only conduits and cells are present, superseded by TVs and computers. In the everyday life of contemporary Danish cities and homes, Halley’s postmodern simulacrum interpretation of privacy and its places is superseded by far by the ear pods and mobiles of today’s Wandersmänner.
[ii] This text is based on a paper presented at the conference Privacy Matters. How Interiors make and break out Cities, held at The Royal Danish Academy, 20th – 21st of April 2023, organized by postdoc Nuno Grancho, supported by Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.
De Certeau, Michel. 1984. “Walking in the City”, in The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press: 91-111.
Halley, Peter. 1984. “The Deployment of the Geometric”, Effects, New York, No.3, Winter 1986.
Halley, Peter. 1985. “On Line”, New Observations 35.
Mauss, Marcel. 1966 (1924-25). The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen and West.
Raahauge, Kirsten Marie. 2006. En Århusantropologi. Ph.d.-afhandling. Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut.
Raahauge, Kirsten Marie. 2007. “In and out of the house. Housing Hau in Sønderborg and Frederikssund”. Knowledge, Technology, and Policy,20: 281-289.
Stjernfelt, Frederik. 2008. “Locale, Street, Square. A Naïve Theory of the City”. Knowledge, Technology and Policy, 21(3): 105-113.
STAY HOME explores the multiple experiences of, and within, the home during the pandemic with a view to examine more long-term changes in our conceptualization, experience, and concretization of the home. A complex phenomenon such as the home requires a multi-faceted research team, and STAY HOME involves researchers from the fields of architecture, science and technology studies, theology, and history. These four disciplines have rarely, if ever, been brought together, but this interdisciplinary constellation provides the necessary knowledge to examine what has happened to the home as a physical, social, existential, and technological site during the pandemic. However, bringing together these disciplines also raises questions regarding interdisciplinary research and collaborative research outputs. The scholars of STAY HOME produce individual PhD-dissertations and research by design experiments, but like many other interdisciplinary teams, must overcome disciplinary boundaries and develop new ways of collaborating when working on joint projects.
In this blog post, the STAY HOME research group presents their collaborative process with developing an audio/spatial installation through interdisciplinary research methods. This endeavour solved some of our challenges of creating a dialogue between the four disciplines involved in the project, but it also tested our skills regarding scholarly communication across disciplinary boundaries, and, finally, opened some unexpected research perspectives. The installation, entitled IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK reflects upon peoples’ experiences of home during lockdown through an audio/spatial bodily experience for the general public. It was shown as part of the larger exhibition BEHAVIOUR/WELFARE at the Royal Danish Academy – Architecture, Design, Conservation from September 2022 to March 2023.
We begin by introducing the STAY HOME research group, its ambition and object of study, as well as the individual projects being undertaken by the researchers. Then we describe our collaborative process in more detail, including the challenges faced, and continue by showing how this process informed shared and individual insights. On this basis, we conclude with some insights that might be useful for other interdisciplinary research groups. We suggest that the development of a common ‘boundary object’ (Star 2010), in this case the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation, enabled exchanges and insights across disciplines, which can also inform individual monodisciplinary projects.
Interdisciplinarity in the context of STAY HOME
The COVID-19 pandemic upset many functions and boundaries of the home. It reminded us that such functions and boundaries are culturally and socially defined, and that they shift across time, impacted by historical circumstances. The pandemic served as a catalyst, foregrounding material, and digital boundaries as well as experiences, social structures, functions, and dysfunctions of the home. For many people, the pandemic gave a new perspective on the lives we live in our homes. These shifts as well as their potential to inform future homes are the object of study in the project STAY HOME: The Home during the Corona Crisis – and after (2020-26), which is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.
The creation of STAY HOME was spurred by an intention in the PI-group to engage with the covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions from an ambitious interdisciplinary perspective, while at the same time having a strong foundation in research fields related to the Humanities. The aim has been to contribute to ongoing research on, and around, the corona pandemic and to gather methodological insights from the interdisciplinary work, and from the ongoing concern with public outreach prepared by the project editor. STAY HOME is led by Professor of Church History Mette Birkedal Bruun, whose experience with interdisciplinary historical research into boundaries and zones that demarcate privacy and the private at the Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies serves as an inspiration for STAY HOME’s even more comprehensive interdisciplinary profile.
STAY HOME’s core research group is comprised of a postdoc and three PhD students, each of whom is responsible for an individual research project exploring a particular aspect of the home. Working within Science and Technology Studies, PhD Student Katja Pape de Neergaard examines the increasingly digitally networked home, how the materiality of home and digital technologies enacts everyday privacy, and individuals’ lived experiences with navigating networked homes during a time characterized by uncertainty. Historian Katrine Rønsig Larsen historicizes the experience of family violence in her PhD dissertation. Through historical cases and interviews from the pandemic, she explores how individuals have interpreted and conveyed their experiences with domestic violence in ways that evolve historically. Architect and Assistant Professor, Nicholas Thomas Lee’s post-doctoral research project entitled, ‘Dwelling in a Time of Social Distancing’ examines the unprecedented demands that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on the domestic interior and its architectural arrangement, with a particular focus on novel domestic morphologies and threshold places. In her PhD dissertation, theologian Anne-Milla Wichmann Kristensen focuses on the pandemic as an experience of crisis, using the German American theologian Paul Tillich’s notion of ‘kairos’ (the opportune moment) as an analytical key. The STAY HOME editor, sociologist Emma Klakk, has a double function as academic coordinator within the research team and communicator mediating between the scholars and the general public on the STAY HOME homepage (mainly Danish), social media channels, and at workshops and other events.
Our collaborative process: Research by Design and creating the installation
Our collaboration began with the establishment of focused reading sessions organized around four central concepts: Home, Phenomenology, Archive, and Thresholds. We each selected research texts, which could shed light on these concepts and at the same time, give each researcher the opportunity to present literature from their respective disciplines. The reading sessions were a way to get to know each other’s disciplines without having to agree on a shared notion of the central concepts, but rather to learn the different nuances, which we individually brought to the study of home. However, the reading sessions primarily facilitated theoretical encounters. An urgent question for us thus became how we could move on to include empirical material in these discussions, and how we could seek to facilitate new insights collaboratively. The desire to address these questions initiated the idea of developing a physical installation, as a type of ‘boundary object’ with a point of departure in the Research by Design method. Discussing the notion of ‘boundary object’ was an early inspiration in our process towards the installation. The term captures the disciplinary liminalities that we navigated in our endeavour to find common ground.
Research by Design as promoted by academics such as Halina Dunin-Woyseth, Leon Van Schaik and Johan Verbeke (2014) is a systematic approach where the practice of design is utilized as the primary means to develop understanding and new knowledge. Birger Sevaldson defines the Research by Design method as, “a special research mode where the explorative, generative and innovative aspects of design are engaged and aligned in a systematic research enquiry.” (Sevaldson 2010, 11). The specific Research by Design method deployed for the development of the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation involved a series of workshops where ‘Inputs’ taking the form of a co-authored abstract based upon the earlier reading sessions, historical references, as well as an archive of interviews, formed the point of departure for ‘Operations’, namely the creative development of the audio/spatial installation. Over the course of the creative process, we held a series of workshops where interim ‘Outputs,’ taking the form of demo sound-collages and spatial sketch ideas, were collectively discussed with insights from the individual projects.
Three initial concepts for a spatial installation were developed by Nicholas; they were inspired from an abstract, collectively written by the research group. Of these three spatial concepts, the group decided to develop the idea for an audio/spatial installation based upon acoustic mirroring walls and audio recordings, during Workshop 02. In between subsequent workshops, Nicholas and Katja developed the spatial design and sound-collages based upon collective reflections and ideas from the group. During the development and refinement of the spatial installation, Nicholas took inspiration from a wide variety of examples of acoustic architecture, such as whispering walls, sound devices dreamed up by the seventeenth-century German Jesuit Scholar and polymath, Athanasius Kircher and various ‘sound mirrors’ utilized during the early twentieth century, as precursors to radar. Midway through the process, the initial sketch ideas for the installation were presented to the STAY HOME perspective panel, comprising of senior academics and researchers that represent the fields of anthropology, architecture, science and technology studies, theology, religious studies, and history, as a form of open interim peer-review.
The final version of IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK presented at the BEHAVIOUR/WELFARE exhibition was assembled by ourselves in collaboration with architect and woodworker Anders Drøidal (OFR Design + Arkitektur), adding even more disciplines to our collaboration.
The installation comprises of a wooden construction supporting a curved ply-wood wall designed to perform as an acoustic mirror and three sound collages. Visitors to the installation are invited to take a seat and listen to the walls. The closer you sit to the wall, the louder the sound. The sound collages run in loops with no intended beginning or ending. Made of fragments of interview recordings from the first lockdown in Denmark, they recall themes of uncertainty and uncomfortableness, collapse of everyday contexts, and ways in which digital technologies mediated or disrupted interactions. The installation encourages reflections on the messy, composite, and diverse experiences of the home during the pandemic to call for considerations on future domestic practices.
Sound collages as a tool for analysis between disciplines
In between the workshops, as described above, creative experimentation took place. For example, the production of original sound collages, crafted from ethnographic material from an archive of more than 200 interviews from the first lockdown in 2020 in Denmark: The Digitization of Everyday Life during the Covid-19 pandemic in Denmark (The VELUX Foundation), directed by Brit Ross Winthereik and Anders K. Munk. In our collaborative workshops, we had identified themes that resonated across projects and excerpts of interviews related to these themes. With these as a guide, Katja dove into the archive asking; what can we learn from this material about practices and experiences at home, and about the crisis? And what can we learn from exploring it through sound, in the form of voice-recordings accompanied by musical instruments and everyday sounds?
Working with the sound recordings brought attention to atmospheres, silences, and uncertainties that were otherwise overlooked in the interview transcripts. For one of the sound collages, we identified sounds of uncertainty and sounds usually left out of interview transcripts; ‘eh’, pauses, hesitations, slurred speech etc. These sounds of uncertainty represented to us how participants were struggling to make sense of their everyday lives at home during the pandemic. In the interviews, many did not even mention their home directly, because they were primarily concerned with trying to describe the overwhelming ambivalence and exhaustion, they felt by staying home during lockdown (de Neergaard, forthcoming). While the home was often absent from the conversation at first glance, it was very much present, and even problematized, as a place of confinement and a space that had to hold many ambivalent experiences.
In other sound collages, we let the diffuse sounds of the materiality of home and its surroundings take centre stage. Here, we reflect on the ambivalence of being home alone, yet still being in the (if only auditory) presence of bird chirpings from outside, the humming noise of dishwashing machines, one’s own sounds, neighbours, and chit-chatter from the media. Working with these sounds brought attention to all that happens when it seems nothing is happening in isolation, and how the home is subject to constant, yet subtle interference and exchange with elsewhere.
The work with sound exemplifies how working creatively with empirical material fosters attention to new, and sometimes subtle, themes in empirical material and produces new analytical insights. In total, we crafted three sound collages that were finalized with the help of composer Finn Cooney.
Exchanges between individual projects and our collaborative efforts
The development of the installation has affected, and been affected by, our individual projects. The process has provoked new questions, new methods, and analytical insights. For example, Katrine inspired the design process with perspectives from the history of emotions, which is reflected in the installation’s concern with how emotional experiences are formed, echoed, and refracted under changing historical conditions. Her specific research on experiences with family violence is furthermore echoed in the sometimes-dismal atmosphere of the sounds collages as well as in the sound collages’ investigation of the silences and struggles to articulate the new experiences of the home generated in the pandemic context.
Katja contributed with ethnographic insights around digital practices, boundaries and the (digital) connection between home and elsewhere. Katja notes that her own PhD has been influenced by the installation work in that she increasingly draws on critical archival analysis (introduced to her by Katrine) to discuss contemporary digital archives, and she has continued to develop the artistic research practices she initiated with her production of sound collages from ethnographic interviews.
Anne-Milla’s research focus on the discussions of experiences of hope and, particularly, anxiety inherent in Tillich’s notion of crisis resurfaces in the claustrophobic tenor of the sound collages. Anne-Milla brings the digital interview archive into her theological work as a present-day counterpoint to Tillich’s twentieth-century theological works. This approach has proven to be a methodological provocation in a discipline, which is traditionally textually oriented, and her work prompted new questions regarding the selection, weight, and analysis of individual interviews. Furthermore, the installation has affected her perspective on the interconnection between the individual and the home consequently making the home prominent in analysing hope and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Nicholas uses the Research by Design method regularly in his own work, the interdisciplinary nature of the STAY HOME project has both challenged and furthered his own understanding of the method. Firstly, Research by Design has far greater acceptance as a scholarly method when working solely within the fields of Architecture and Design, however, when utilizing this method within an interdisciplinary research environment one is forced to be even more explicit about the process and its specific ‘Inputs’, ‘Operations’, ‘Outputs’ and ‘Deliverables.’ Secondly, another important learning for Nicholas has been the importance of explicitly acknowledging one’s research archive, particularly in relation to spatial references. During a design process, the Architect often uses many implicit historical references in developing and informing a proposal. During the exchanges with his three research colleagues at the workshops, it became apparent how important it is to clearly ‘cite’ spatial references, in the case of the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation, examples of acoustic architecture as proof of the concept from a technological perspective.
Insights for interdisciplinary research groups: Takeaways from our collaborative process
Embracing theoretical difference and nuance
One challenge that interdisciplinary research teams often face is the need to establish a shared language across disciplines. This applies to the concrete terminology and concepts used within each discipline, but also to the underlying assumptions, i.e., how different disciplines methodologically approach a research problem, how they employ theory, and what empirical data they use and how (Siedlok and Hibbert 2012). The effort to identify and create common terminology is an elusive and time-consuming endeavour. The challenges arguably vary according to the particular disciplines that are brought into dialogue with each other, which may pose more or less deep disciplinary and vocabulary differences to overcome. In many cases though, attempting to reach a mutual definition of central underlying concepts can obstruct the productivity of conjoining different disciplines to explore new problems.
The process of developing the installation as a ‘boundary object’ between disciplines mitigated such challenges. Through the reading sessions, workshops, and feedback meetings, our collective and individual understandings of our core concept, home, became more complex and nuanced. In the reading sessions, we structured our theoretical encounters in a way that embraced nuance and complexity; we sought to understand the premise and traditions of each other’s disciplines, not to force them together into normative conceptual definitions. The notion of home thus became a (conceptual) place for us to meet as researchers, and a place from which we were able to venture into each other’s fields.
From theoretical encounters to analysis through creative production
To capture this theoretical nuance, and not least to use it to understand empirical material and the experiences of our interviewees, we used artistic research practices, namely the Research by Design method. We suggest that the installation, and perhaps more importantly the process that led to its realization, is a useful format to foster interdisciplinary exchange. Meeting in and around the installation stimulated attention to analytical insights, rather than disciplinary differences. Through the workshops and the design-related aspects of creating the installation, we facilitated a shared space, into which we could bring our academic perspectives, without a need to constantly define their differences. Meeting in and around the installation, as a ‘boundary object,’ allowed us to let disciplinary boundaries dissolve and be redrawn as needed, as we discussed empirical material, design ideas, and creative interpretations. We considered this work as reflection-in-progress, rather than a communication of shared results.
Interdisciplinary work produces disciplinary inspiration
The installation facilitated an experience for audiences to reflect upon the home, but it also produced important new reflections and inspiration for the individual research projects. Sceptics of interdisciplinary research may argue that it risks diluting the individual researcher’s academic profile and disciplinary standards. However, we experienced that the interdisciplinary collaboration led to an increased ‘groundedness’ in our individual projects and made each researcher feel more at home in their own discipline. We suggest that there are several, interrelated explanations for this. Interdisciplinary research compels each researcher to clearly state what their approach is, and the ways in which they approach empirical materials, which helps elucidate and raise their awareness of their taken-for-granted ways of thinking within their own discipline. As noted, it also provides each researcher with new analytical and methodological insights for individual projects and challenges their own research methods and field-specific assumptions.
Advice for prioritizing alternative formats of collaboration despite structural barriers
Complex societal questions demand interdisciplinary research perspectives, and more and more interdisciplinary research is being funded. However, the academic system is not always equipped to support the work conducted by interdisciplinary teams. As multiple disciplines are brought together, so are varying, and sometimes competing scholarly requirements, values, and standards for knowledge production. Creating common ground in this encounter can become a significant barrier because the research teams struggle to find a shared scholarly format. As we have shown, interdisciplinary work benefits from alternative formats of collaboration, but is often confronted with the lack of avenues and appreciation for such work. While our creative collaboration produced nuanced collective and individual insights, the installation format proved difficult to peer-review; it does not result in any publishable deliveries in the traditional sense, and as such, does not result in any ‘credits’ in the conventional academic system which prioritizes peer-reviewed written outputs. Additionally, individual researchers often work on mono-disciplinary projects, which must be peer-reviewed within their own disciplinary fields (Christiansen 2021). Such challenges can leave teams unable to disseminate shared insights, but also be a demotivating factor for interdisciplinary knowledge production.
To succeed despite concerns over lack of conventional publishing, we found that a generous academic and collegial culture is a crucial component. It requires courage and motivation to continue with efforts that do not have predetermined means of being published. In our case, prioritizing an inspiring work environment allowed for unique reflections that informed both shared and individual projects. In addition, prioritizing funding for the role of Emma Klakk as our project editor has been a central feature to completing the project. Emma has handled a lot of both visible and invisible administrative and communicative labour in the research process, which can otherwise easily exhaust many research projects.
Finally, we experimented with alternative formats for peer-interaction, all organized around the IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK installation and the STAY HOME conference, where the work and its process were disseminated to peers from a wide variety of disciplinary fields. Yet, challenges with facilitating constructive interdisciplinary work cannot be solved by individual teams alone. The academic community needs to think both critically and creatively about how such work is valued, to gain the much-needed insights from interdisciplinary projects.
Interdisciplinary teams face a number of challenges related to organizing collaboration, forming shared vocabularies, valuing ‘unpublishable’ efforts, and creating productive exchanges between collective and individual projects. In this blogpost, we have shown how organizing our collaboration around an audio/spatial installation as a boundary object for interdisciplinary exchange, helped mitigate such challenges. Using a Research by Design approach, we facilitated a shared space where we could let disciplinary boundaries dissolve and be re-drawn as needed. This process showed the benefits of embracing theoretical nuance, how creative practices fostered new perspectives on empirical material, and produced new methodological and analytical inspiration for our individual projects. We thus suggest that such a format of collaboration is beneficial for interdisciplinary teams, but also note that it requires patience, courage, and a supportive and generous leadership to succeed.
 In the article, This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept (2010), the American sociologist Susan Leigh Star discusses the role of ‘boundary objects’, particularly in relation to collaborative endeavours, whereby it allows “different groups to work together without consensus.” Star identifies “interpretive flexibility” as an important aspect of any boundary object, while emphasizing that boundary in this case should be understood as “a shared space”, rather than “an edge or periphery”, particularly in relation to interdisciplinary work.
 We have benefitted immensely from collaborations with composer Finn Cooney, architect Anders Drøidal (OFR Design + Arkitektur), architect Peter Alexander Bullough (SUPERNATURE), Olivia Toftum, the STAY HOME perspective panel, Standard Practice, The Digitization of Everyday Life during the Covid-19 pandemic in Denmark, and all our interviewees. Furthermore, we thank the Carlsberg Foundation for funding our research and STARK GENTRÆ for sponsoring materials for the installation and assisting us in the reuse of the installation and the materials afterwards.
Emily Cuming is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.
On the move
The imperative to “stay home” at a time of crisis is more problematic than it appears. Indeed, among the many things that the global pandemic exposed was how the ability to pivot to a home-centred life, including working from home, was linked to questions of class privilege (Weinar 2021). Beyond recent history, home for many workers, migrants and refugees, has had to be negotiated in transit, on the move, in conditions of flux, precarity and through a variety of practices (Ralph and Staeheli 2011).
My paper presented at the Stay Home conference focused on historical subjects whose working lives were defined precisely by a departure from home – British sailors of the “ordinary” rank who formed part of a floating global proletariat, servicing merchant ships on international journeys that could stretch from a matter of weeks to several years[i]. Many of the individuals who formed the merchant navy workforce signed on to ships not, as the popular phrase had it, to “see the world,” nor to join the ranks of those engaged in the Victorian “flight from domesticity,” but to earn a living wage that was often critical to the support of a family and homestead on shore[ii]. In the predominantly all-male space of the merchant ship, workers had to adapt to the “separate sphere” of their floating work-homes. There sailors worked, slept, fraternized (and sometimes fought) within the confines of the ship, in which principles of collectivity were key and privacy at a premium.
The importance of home for sailors was not necessarily diminished by their departure from it (Cuming 2019). On voyages, sailors maintained their shore-based attachments through a variety of practices, including letter writing and craftwork (Wassell Smith 2018). Some devoted private leisure time to personal journals, logbooks and handwritten notebooks, a number of which have been conserved in museum archives or among family papers[iii]. While existing studies of this writing have tended to view them as providing useful evidence of shipboard work and the broader culture of the ship (Blum 2008; Cummings and Publicover 2021), my work demonstrates that these documents also have the potential to point to aspects of self-identity, kinship and emotional lives. This interpretation has sometimes necessitated reading against the grain of work-focused entries, to trace the personal within the writing.
At home on the waves
While sea-journals are often preoccupied with the rote details of shipboard life – nautical coordinates, weather, and work – like diaries, they can also offer glimpses of sailors’ personal lives. One seafaring carpenter, John Dand, for example, was thinking of his young daughter as he set sail from Swansea to Caldera in Chile on the barque Sir Henry Pottinger on March 18th 1858, noting on the first page of his “Private Journal” that it was his “dear little daughters birthday at 11 O clock this morning”. As Easter Sunday came round, he used the occasion to reflect on domestic pleasures: “My third Sunday on the sea. I am thinking of England and the happy youngsters with their new clothes, and wondering if my dear little daughter has got a new frock, I think its fond mother would get it one, at least its father would if he had been at home.” Adopting the generic trope of one type of diarist, his entries shifted to the second person voice as he directed his comments to his family as if writing an unsent letter: “Capt B[arnes] and I have had a long chat about home and friends,” he wrote in one entry, adding “we are wondering what you are all doing, and thinking about, no doubt you are all in your beds and most likely asleep as by you it will only want a few minutes till midnight.”[iv]
Some journals reveal the extent to which sailors suffered from that other well-known affliction at sea: homesickness. This formed the dominant note of the pages of 22-year-old George Mansfield’s sea journal, another ship’s carpenter who had worked at the profession since the age of fourteen. On a Sunday at sea, the day of relative rest even for sailors, he reflected: “Today can not help thinking about home & its comforts & fancying myself seated round a comfortable fireside of a winters Sunday afternoon. Far different here cold & wet & deprived of almost every comfort. Still the thought of Home & the Hope of meeting again, cheers us up a little.”[v] Neil Smith, a general sailor on board the Finisterre barque sailing from Cardiff to Java in 1876-1877, was also afflicted by the miseries of homesickness, as noted in the diary from the very moment the ship left port. While doggedly jotting details of the many jobs he performed around the ship, in a phonetic style that revealed his inexperience at writing, he seamlessly blended mundane tasks with intimations of family and home in Greenock: “I have finished the Lader. I am fixing [little jobs] about the deck. I wonder how my darling Jane is getting on and hir wee Boys. … The snow will begun to fal there now. They will not be much out now. The cold will keep them in the house. May God Bless and Keep them and take me safe back to them agane.”[vi] Like Dand and Mansfield, he imagined home through visions of family togetherness and the perennial image of the Victorian hearth. Loneliness is a bodily emotion, experienced corporeally, and captured in writing through images of heat and comfort, as noted in Joanne Begiato’s blog for this series. In this way, sailors’ diaries evoked home-spun images of terrestrial routines and sentimental tropes of home. Of course, such figurations have to be evaluated in the context of the writers’ nostalgia and necessary detachment from mundane familial routines: absence from home may well have made the hearts of seafaring men fonder.
The sea diary as property
Sea journals, or personal logbooks, could offer a multifunctional form for working sailors – a document into which they poured details of passing days, work performed, and a repository for thoughts of family, home and kinship stretching across oceans. Superficially, this writing can appear to be fairly generic and rote; the writers were mostly unprofessional or “amateur,” and a few may have been keeping journals for the first time. Yet it is important to recognize that this writing – ordinary as it might appear – was an intentional act within the context of shipboard life. Given that physical space, including sleeping quarters, was shared, private writing would have necessitated at least temporary removal from the rest of the group. Notebooks would need to have been bought and packed in advance in order to form part of a sailor’s necessarily slim cache of possessions, and they required careful preservation in conditions of perpetual wetness. The paratextual elements of sea journals – details marking the front and back covers, including marginalia, inscriptions and doodles and signatures – reveal their significance as forms of personal property. Some flyleaves display not only the sailor’s name, but their dedication to family members, suggesting their intended readership and the role of the notebook as a potential souvenir to be returned home after the voyage. Sometimes diarists wrote out their home addresses on the front pages, confirming the diary’s status as personal property while also signaling how the journal logged space as well as time.
As with the writings of the inmates of other non-domicile environments, such as institutions or workplaces, ordinary journals served a wider function than that indicated by their surface content. For as the historian Amanda Vickery suggests, throughout history, material objects of the most mundane or plain kind have enabled the poor and those enduring forms of deprivation to keep hold of a sense of self through possessions – from clothes, to locking boxes, mementoes, and small ornaments: ‘Access to a small place of privacy held out a promise of some autonomy and independence” (2010: 27). Viewed in this way, the diaries fulfilled not only a practical but also a symbolic function as private property.
This is not to imply, however, that diaries were a place into which sailors disclosed “private” or confessional thoughts. Indeed, life writing scholarship has shown that the idea of the diary as a receptacle for innermost feelings is anachronistic in relation to this period (Henderson 2018:165). Like diaries, logbooks might be written in full view of others, read by other individuals, and written with an intended readership in mind. Indeed, as Maya Jasanoff puts it, on a ship the sailor was in the paradoxical position of being “never alone… always isolated” (2017: 91). Yet this does not diminish the significance of the personal logbook as a Victorian article of self or “ego document.” As an artefact and practice, the journal fulfilled an important role for these Victorian mobile workers. It was a “place” to return to at the end of a day or week, on the ocean, when there was nowhere else to go. As a piece of private property, it also situated the writer as a social self, entangled in family and kinship relations that extended beyond the immediate society of the ship.
How do logbooks end?
In his well-known essay, the life writing theorist Philippe Lejeune reflected on the question: “How do diaries end?” (2001). We cannot know for sure how logbooks ended, whether, for example, sailor-authors morphed into more standard diary writers on their return from voyages. Nor can we know for sure how they were received by the loved ones they evoked in journals on their way home – celebrated as returning breadwinners, or received more indifferently by children who viewed them as strangers. In some cases, logbooks survived their authors, returning as personal property in the event of the writer’s death at sea. Yet a closer look at the journals as material cultural objects can offer clues about the return of the sailor-diary. In some cases, the inscription of family names, including dates of birth and death at the front of journals, suggests that they wound their way home to take up a place as family books: read, perhaps, by the sailor’s children, preserved and passed on as heirlooms. In this way, the personal logbook completed its journey into its new role as a form of family book.
[i] This research was supported by a Short-Term Caird Research Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK, and by the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. The blog is based on work from my forthcoming monograph, Maritime Relations: Sailors, Family and Writing Networks, c. 1850-1914.
[ii] On the “flight from domesticity,” see Tosh 2005: 330–42.
[iii] In archive catalogues, the terms range from “diary” to “journal” to “logbook,” with other variations in between. Using research methodologies drawn primarily from the field of life studies, my work suggests that sailors’ personal logbooks were hybrid forms, lying at the intersection of a number of other genres to create new documents of the Victorian self.
[iv] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. JOD/278/1-2. Log and Journal Kept by John Dand, Carpenter on the Barque Sir Henry Pottinger, 1858.
[v] National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich. MXX/75/007. A Transcription of the Journal of George William Mansfield on his Voyage from Liverpool to San Francisco and Back on the Lady Heathcote in 1868-69.
[vi] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. MSS/84/052. Transcript of the Diary of Neil Smith, Carpenter on the Barque Cape Finisterre, 1876 to 1877.
Blum, Hester. The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Cuming, Emily. “At Home in the World? The Ornamental Life of Sailors in Victorian Sailortown,” Victorian Literature and Culture. 47, no. 3 (2019): 463–85. doi:10.1017/S1060150318001523.
Cumings, Eli, and Laurence Publicover. “Shipboard Diaries as Navigational Instruments.” In Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea, edited by Susann Liebich and Laurence Publicover, 107-29. Basingstoke: 2021.
Henderson, Desirée. “Reading Digitized Diaries: Privacy and the Digital Life-Writing Archive.” A/b: Auto/Biography Studies 33, no. 1 (2018): 157-74. doi: 10.1080/08989575.2018.1389845.
Jasanoff, Maya. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. London, 2017.
Tosh, John, “Masculinities in an Industrializing Society: Britain, 1800–1914.” The Journal of British Studies 44, no. 2 (2005): 330–42. doi:10.1086/427129.
Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven. 2010.
Wassell Smith, Maya, “‘The Fancy Work What Sailors Make:’ Material and Emotional Creative Practice in Masculine Seafaring Communities.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 14, no. 2 (2018): https://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue142/smith.html (Accessed 5 January 2023)
Suzie Attiwill is a designer, curator and Professor of Interior Design in the School of Architecture and Urban Design, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home’ in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the conference presentation by the author.
“Feeling at home” in out-of-home residential care
“Every child or young person who is removed from their parents has the right to live somewhere that feels like home. For many of the children and young people the Commission spoke to in foster and kinship care, being in care felt safe, stable and homely. For the majority of those living in residential care, however, being in care felt unsafe, unstable and not at all like home.” (Commission for Children and Young People CCYP, 2019: 25).
The juxtaposition of “feeling at home” and yet out of home embodies the complexity of the situation of residential care in relation to the idea of home as both a feeling and a physical location. In 2018-19, the Australian Government developed a nationally consistent definition of out-of-home care as:
“… overnight care for children aged under 18 who are unable to live with their families due to child safety concerns. … Children are placed in out-of-home care for many reasons, including: being the subjects of substantiations and needing a protective environment, having parents who are incapable of providing adequate care, needing alternative accommodation during times of conflict, having parents or carers who need respite. Consistent with the principle of keeping children with their families where it is safe and appropriate to do so, out-of-home care placements are considered as a last resort.” (AIHW 2023)
In Australia, there are five types of out-of-home care: home-based care, residential care, independent living, family group homes, and other. Home-based care is accommodation in the home of a nominated and approved carer such as a relative/kin or foster carer. Like family group homes, there is a sense of family in the way relationships work and how the environment is set up. In contrast, residential care is a different arrangement. Some houses are purpose-built, and some are existing domestic suburban houses which have been adapted. Residential care houses are usually group houses with up to 4 young people living together and staffed 24 hours by care workers on rotating shifts. The report In our own words. Systemic inquiry into the lived experience of children and young people living in the Victorian out-of-home care system by the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People documents that many young people living in residential care describe these houses as feeling “cold, an institutional living environment” (CCYP 2019: 131) and the “physical living environment was sterile, impersonal, dilapidated or ‘like a prison’” (CCYP 2019: 162).
The environment of residential care houses has been the focus of a series of undergraduate interior design studios and currently, a research project at RMIT University. In 2008, Gregory Nicolau, a consultant psychologist in the out-of-home sector and founder of Australian Childhood Trauma Group, approached me as head of RMIT Interior Design to see if students could become involved in offering design ideas to transform the environment of residential care units into a more therapeutic experience. The outcome was a series of interior design studios titled Beyond Building (Attiwill 2010; Attiwill 2012).
More recently in 2022, a research project engaged the potential of spatial design in relation to the expectation that out-of-home residential care should provide a sense of home. This project titled Developing spatial design know-how with and for young people living in residential care involved young people who have lived experience of residential care. It is a pilot project to explore the potential of bringing spatial design and lived experience of residential care together to focus on the environment of residential care in relation to questions of belonging and home.
Coming from a design background as distinct from social sciences, I was keen to explore a different approach to one of interviews and/or surveys. While the initial intent was to engage the young people in a design-led process through design charettes1, other practices also emerged and entwined with design techniques. For example, trauma-informed practice2, co-production defined as “inclusive convening to share knowledge and power” (Y-Change 2020, 6), and the process of gaining ethics approval3 influenced the way the design charettes were set-up and the way we worked. The design charrettes, which are usually intense periods of brainstorming and drawing, were slowed down and became more conversational as we shared our different expertise in and experiences of spatial awareness over plans and photographs of houses.
The charrettes were held at the Design Hub at RMIT University; a space dedicated to design teaching and research. The set-up of the space was important; three large generic suburban house plans were arranged on tables together with photographs taken during the Beyond Building studios. This enabled us to imagine moving through the environment, from the outside and street-views through doors and across thresholds, into rooms and around arrangements of furniture and decoration, projecting sightlines and recollecting atmospheres.
Following is a selection of comments made by the lived experience consultants during the charrettes. They are presented here – as quotes – to offer insight into specific details regarding the question of home and the physical living environment of residential care. In between these quotes, I have added some of my own observations that connect with and/or expand upon the points being made.4
“You can’t settle in as you can be moved anytime and without warning.”
“Resi care homes definitely feel impermanent. That’s the whole intent of them anyway. It’s not meant to be permanent. I feel like that’s the entire experience of a lot of spaces. Like no matter where I go, it’s where it feels very impermanent. Like this isn’t a space that you’re meant to stay.”
“I don’t unpack. Because I move so often.”
“Someone else has left their mark before you … like when you open a cupboard, you’ll see graffiti in the inside that people have left there. … It can also really indicate that it’s not a permanent space. Like it’s a place where you pass through. … So, it doesn’t really feel like a home.”
In residential care, a young person is placed, and this is referred to as a placement. While place and place-making in design have associated meanings of specificity and connection, placement in residential care has a negative inflection. Depending on the situation, a young person may stay for several months, even years or could be moved within days.
“You can tell a resi-care house from the street, it looks different.”
“Often the grass is a bit patchy and it doesn’t look like it’s been looked after.”
“They all look the same; not in terms of building style but other aspects, such as the grass is barely there, the windows are covered.”
“Like no-one lives there.”
Residential care houses are usually located in residential areas. Many of them are houses that have been previously lived in by families and have been adapted to residential care specifications such as including an office and overnight accommodation for workers; some are purpose-built.
“The problem with the purpose-built houses is that they are built for this purpose; whereas the adapted houses have a sense of a previous life; of being lived in.”
The interior atmosphere is described as institutional. The yellow-cream colour of walls is the same colour used in institutional spaces experienced by young people such as hospitals and government offices. The communal spaces such as living room, dining area, and kitchens are referred to by the young people living there as public spaces.
“Resi care is really clinical, like the common room spaces don’t look nice. You walk into the space and it just doesn’t feel like a home. … the tacky lino on floors and the furniture in general.”
“Safety is sort of over emphasized. And so, it’s just really institutionalized. That’s what institutionalizes them in lots of ways is to make everything safe. But it’s in a standard safe safety way.”
“The fact that every single wall is plaster board feels like you are living in a world of cardboard.”
“It doesn’t really give you any incentive to want to take care of things if it’s always cheap and nasty.”
“I remember plastic flowers like the $2 shop ones that are obviously plastic.”
“It’s not something you would choose for yourself.”
“I feel like people are less likely to value things if it’s not something that they personally had a choice. It feels like a stranger’s place essentially.”
“When I would go into a resi unit, they’d already have the bedroom set up with things that I didn’t resonate with. You know they would just consider if a female or a male is coming to a space. … I think they got it right to some extent with one of the resi because it was just black and white; and I was like, thank God it’s not pink. But it still had like butterflies and things on the bedding. It isn’t really my sort of space.”
“At least to be able to have your own belongings in a space where you can see them and have somewhere to hang things up and organize your space. Or even a space where you can go and take 10 minutes just for yourself. Like somewhere you can play musical instrument or read a book; somewhere where you don’t hear what’s going on in the next room.”
Following are two lists which outline expectations of the environment of residential care in relation to providing a sense of home. One written by the Victorian State Government, and one created by Ella, one of the young consultants bringing lived experience to the design charrette. The comparison of these lists clarifies that the need and desires of young people in residential care is not purely material, but also aesthetic, social, personal, and functional.
The Victorian State Government has a policy titled Program requirements for residential care in Victoria. In Section 3:Environment and material goods requirements, there is a “principle statement” that reads “Despite some children needing to live away from their home and families in residential care, Child Safety Officers must ensure where ever possible a home-like environment is created to ensure children receive nurturing and a positive care experience”; a summary of expectations states “The physical living environment will reflect community expectations of a ‘home’” and lists the requirements to ensure a “home-like environment”:
Each child will be provided with their own bed and linen.
Each child will be provided with accommodation that reflects their need for privacy and space.
Each child will be provided with a space in which they can safely store their personal belongings.
Child Safety Officers will provide children with personal items, household provisions and educational items (including books and toys) that are culturally and developmentally appropriate.
Children will be clothed in a manner that complies with reasonable community standards and expectations.
Children will be provided with a diet that promotes good health and complies with reasonable community standards and expectations, as well as with their cultural and religious background. Children will have reasonable access to a variety of food while residing in placement.
Children not already receiving an income will be provided with a weekly allowance that meets reasonable community standards.” (DFFH, 2023)
The following list is by Ella, one of the CREATE Young Consultants participating in the charrette:
“Residential unit interior design workshop (6 September 2022):
Inbuilt cupboard with drawers and hanging space for clothes.
Heavy duty door without it looking clinical.
Windows with locks.
Doors with locks.
Mandatory for ALL rooms to have a desk (inbuilt or not) to do things that bring them joy or for practical reasons such as homework.
Somewhere to display meaning items.
Locked cabinet for personal items (photos, meaningful objects etc.).
Neutral colour palette without looking clinical or like we are in an institution (hospital, jail cell).
Separate living areas for young people and carers/workers that is open to both.
Swing outside/inside – movement may help a young person feel less distressed.
Fixing holes in the walls IMMEDIATELY – promote feelings of safety for other young people.
Mould and interior design breakdown (pests, paint flaking, structural damage) to be addressed IMMEDIATELY.
Dining room table is a must to promote a sense of unity.
Enable young people to choose their own style – get allowance to go shopping for decorations etc.
Space dividing rooms for privacy reasons.
MAXIMUM of 3 young people in each residential unit.”
The difference between the two lists is poignant – the first list outlines minimum expectations of needs to make a “home-like environment” and Ella’s list outlines, as she said “what we’re really entitled to”: an ability to arrange and organise one’s surroundings; to feel secure – one’s self and personal items; to be able to display and do things which give a sense of joy; to be able to relax and settle; to have the ability to find privacy and to be private; to not live surrounded by evidence of neglect, damage and violence; to have choice in terms of one’s setting such as furniture and bedroom furnishings; to be able to freely access food and to engage in everyday rituals such as sharing a meal. Ella’s list expresses not only needs but also desires which are aesthetic and ethical as well as functional.
At the time of the STAY HOME conference and now writing this text, the research project is still in process and while there will be more to consider, environments that create feelings of comfort and the ability to settle have emerged as critical. The question of home shifts from one of how to make an environment “home-like” to a consideration of conditions that will support young people to make connections that enable them to settle, to feel secure and stable; to have a sense of being somewhere.
“Like home is a place where I do not have to deal with the rest of the day. Where you just relax.”
Thank you to the following for their support and contribution to the project: CREATE Foundation and to CREATE Young Consultants – Ella & Hayley – and to Berry Street Youth Exchange and the Y-Change Lived Experience Consultants – Natasha and others; and Gregory Nicolau, founder Australian Childhood Trauma Group and Ripple. Thank you to Dr Sheena Elwick, Charles Sturt University, for her insights. This project continues the work of the LIVEability project, a collaboration with Mary Featherston.
This research has been made possible with the assistance of the Alastair Swayn Foundation Design Thinking Grant. A report will be published on Alastair Swayn Foundation website in July 2023. https://alastairswaynfoundation.org/
A design charette is like a co-design process where the solution to a problem is sought through a collective design process.
Trauma-informed practice is not about the treatment of trauma but a recognition that anyone may have an experience of trauma. It is based around 5 principles: safety; trustworthiness; choice; collaboration; empowerment.
Universities require academic researchers to gain ethics approval if their research involves human and/or animal participants. Key ethical considerations to be addressed in the application are respect, justice, beneficence, research merit and integrity.
At this stage in the project, quotes have not been attributed to an individual. The reasons for this are that not everyone gave consent for their name to be used and, as the project is still in process, we have not yet discussed how best to process the full transcript of the recordings from the charrettes. Neither have acronyms nor numeric codes been used as the conversation roamed and often people would finish each other’s sentence or drop in and pull out a key point.
Hanna Reichel is a theologian and Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, USA.
We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the keynote lecture of the author.
Two romances of the home
Home is a deeply romantic idea: the projected source of authentic, aesthetic experience for the individual in its social nucleus, an imbuing of the simple and every-day with an aura, a chase for fragments and glimpses of an impossible idea. Home, then, is an idea that galvanizes and directs emotion in powerful ways, in aspiration as much as in nostalgia, which we might interpret as two different variations of the romance of home, marked, as I want to argue, by two different theological orientations.
On the one hand, there is home as “heaven on earth” – the compensatory overdetermination of our earthly dwellings and relationships that is constantly evoked in commercials, in certain brands of religion, in patriotic celebrations. It shows red-cheeked children playing, perfect meals prepared by a loving homemaker, cozying up around an open fireplace, a wholesome vision of laughter and comfort. This home is not an ideal or a projected future, this home is always already filled with nostalgia and with the sense of looming threat. We know that the warm fuzzy feeling will not last, that the in-laws will not appreciate the lovingly prepared dinner. We know that we cannot buy the kid’s affection or secure their sheltered innocence as they grow up and turn into ungrateful brats. We know that the loving wife will leave us for a feminist lesbian witch, that immigrants will take our jobs, that the neighborhood will be gentrified to the point that it will look at us as less than respectable contenders for these holy grounds.
These threats, real or perceived, generate powerful emotive reactions: anxiety, envy, and resentment. We see them at work in our societies from the doubling down on the traditional family and its supposed values, to xenophobia and Christian nationalism. This vision of home quickly sprouts white picket fences and border walls, security cameras, neighborhood watches and “stand your ground” laws. “A gentleman’s home is his castle” and woe to those who dare invade this space — or change its interior decorations. “Home is where the heart is” – and woe to those who are unable or unwilling to fit the rosy vision, who are not always loving, self-sacrificial, community-oriented, useful, industrious, and productive of “good feelings” because they are, say, moody, strange, queer, disabled, old – or simply do not quite belong, because we do not own them, they never belong to us. The space of home turns into a territory to be defended, a shelter or bunker of the privileged, and people are turned into prized possessions or excised as disruptive, “anti-social” elements.
The home as “heaven on earth” is unachievable – fleeting at best and violent at worst. A different romance of the home ensues when one gives up trying to bring “heaven onto earth” and instead projects home into the beyond. Its theological orientation is that of Hebrews 14: “We have here no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Other biblical accounts celebrate our status as merely guests in this world, as pilgrims toward heaven, our eternal home. If “home is where the heart is,” St. Augustine cries to God, “restless is our heart, until it finds rest in you.” Home is something that is always not (yet!) fully realized, something yet to come, something we can only keep moving toward in tireless pursuit.
Projecting home into a future (and ultimately into a beyond which we of course never reach), will keep your gaze fixed to the horizon rather than to a nostalgic vision of an imaginary past. This second romance of the home also generates powerful affective responses. Reveling in longing and yearning, restlessness, and zealousness can be very comforting amidst the necessary disillusionments with any actually existent home. It will allow us to survive the disappointment and keep going, it might prevent us from forming the strong attachments to a particular place and space that can so easily turn into violence when it slips from grasp. This romance might even engender some solidarity with other dwellers in our shared predicament. However, more often than not, it relativizes such bonds.
Throughout history and into the present day, people have critiqued such a transcendent theological orientation as relativizing our existence here and now in favor of a beyond, whether in the future or a full-blown afterlife, as making Christians indifferent towards suffering or even valorizing it as a prize to pay for an eternal reward. Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach, or in our days, Martha Nussbaum or Martin Hägglund formulate versions of such a critique and claim that only by giving up the romantic idea of a “life to come” will we really be able to commit to the struggles of “this life” and truly seek the flourishing of earthly creatures, both ourselves and those around us.
Seek belonging and distrust it
Against the romantizations of the home, feminist, queer, and crip (critical disability) scholars have long pointed out the ambivalences of the home – with special attention to the entanglement of its material and its epistemic effects. Home, this supposedly universal necessity and universal desire, is even at its best a material, social, and emotional privilege that only few enjoy, and mostly temporarily. And even those who “have” it often do not feel that way.
The boundedness of the home generates force fields of control and formations of differential access. If the social and material bounds that constitute a home stand for shelter, protection, and safety, they also signify confinement and exclusion, often along lines of gender, age, ability, and employability. If the home invokes visions of belonging, we might also be reminded that belonging participates in the semantics of possession, of property, with territorial effects with regard to space and objectifying effects with regard to people. If the home stands for privacy and intimacy, it also stands for the terrors of intimacy. The shielding of domestic abuse and violence from outside view come to mind, as do many other ways in which homes trap and confine people into unhappy arrangements with little access to public participation, articulation, or recourse: prisoners under house arrest, stay-at-home moms, queer teenagers, and neglected elders might experience versions of these effects. To the restriction of movement and social isolation come added burdens of the hermeneutical effects of their invisibilization.
No wonder that “home” is most often invoked in its acutely perceived absence, in discourses of exile and diaspora, in talk of sin as estrangement and alienation, in eschatological visions of our “eternal home.” Home, then, is “not a place,” but it is also not “a people”: Its invocation is the feeling of longing for belonging, homelessness, restlessness, unsettledness – a perceived lack, and a negative affective response to it. In a time of as much upheaval and transformation as ours, whole societies are haunted by a longing for belonging.
Is our longing for belonging more than a private, is it a “public feeling”? Affect theorists have used this term not just to signal wide-spread sentiment, but symptoms of deep-structural societal malaise. Queer and crip scholars have insisted that, rather than being pathological and in need of correction, “bad feelings” like anxiety and depression are healthy responses to unhealthy structural conditions, and that we should appreciate them for their epistemological value as well as their potential in resisting the normative forces that direct our longings in “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011) to shiny visions of “happiness” or “belonging” whose pursuit and achievement are directly detrimental to our flourishing.
The “Stay at home” mandates of the Covid19 pandemic have further complicated any romance of the home. Staying at home did not create universal feelings of “being at home,” instead, added epidemics of loneliness, anxiety, and depression were quickly diagnosed and seem to persist just like the now endemic covid waves.
The privation of public space brought both a privation of public life as well as a large-scale privation of privacy: Personal space, routines, and moments became very publicly exposed as zoom cameras and social media pushed further into bedrooms and kitchens than ever before. Bringing us “closer to those far away,” it also left us too close to those who were already too close to us. For some, confinement to the home meant additional exposure to domestic violence and abuse, for some it meant that any precarious work-life balance they might have navigated previously now turned into double full-time expectation of “remote work” and care work.
As all equalizing shifts, this one too had highly unequal effects, often amplifying existing global, economic, and gendered inequalities. While “working from home” (as well as socializing and praying from home) afforded more access for those already previously homebound, it also highlighted the privilege of having a home (with the requisite technological infrastructure) and it exacerbated existent unequal distributions of labor (where those shouldering the lion’s share of care-taking and domestic responsibilities were now even less protected against the tentacles of remote work in double exploitation).
It also revealed the unequal distribution of risk, partly exacerbating, partly shifting it: For others, yet, their financial situation or qualification structure meant they never had the choice of “sheltering in place,” taking refuge in the relative safety of their home. Celebrating the contribution of “front line workers” in rhetoric of military sacrifice became a way of glossing over the societally unequal distribution of risk along class, racial, and gendered lines.
As the experience of its physical and social boundedness shifted from one of comfort to an experience of confinement on a global scale, the ambivalences of the home were experienced by much broader segments of our societies than ever before. Suddenly, everyone was acutely confronted with the vulnerability and exposure of one’s own body and mind to overwhelming health threats, with the risk of “being with others,” and experienced the insufficiency of public health approaches in mitigating individual risk that many disabled people navigate constantly. Suddenly many, if temporarily, were prevented by material, social, and legal barriers from public participation as much as from sociality and intimacy.
Experience affords insight. All embodiment comes with vulnerability and (inter)dependence, but those temporarily disabled by the pandemic were acutely confronted with their share in the universal predicament of fleshly existence long theorized by disability scholars. Talk of the “new normal” and calls to “return to normal” became regularly punctuated by the insight that the old “normal” had not been “heaven on earth,” either. Whatever else the pandemic did, it also became a catalyst for pinpointing the ableist, patriarchal, economic, and ecological entanglements of the “old normal.”
Living in the ruins
We are not living “after covid” but we are living after the epistemic rupture that it has effected. Our moment is therefore “post-apocalyptic” in the literal sense: The revelatory catastrophe has happened, but no rapture has ensued, we are left to live “in the ruins” of our romances, an ongoing, creeping disillusionment without a redemptive “fix” or cleansing purge.
As in any good postapocalyptic scenario, the disabled body is a fixture in this endemic state of unbelonging, and the boundaries between physical impairment and social disablement have once more become blurred. The post-pandemic crip might not be the disfigured inhabitant of a toxic wasteland at the remnants of civilization. The post-pandemic crip is instead the pale recluse sheltering, confined to, hidden away in the “home” from the risks of being with other people, the ongoing compromise of the immuno-compromised. The post-pandemic crip might not be the metastasizing body of those exposed to atomic radiation, but rather the person afflicted by the “long covid’s” ongoing toll on physical and mental health as well as social participation.
The post-pandemic crip comes in other forms as well. A few years into Covid19, the disablements of the “old normal” and the exclusions and debilitating effects of the “new normal” continue to exist in superimposed states without redemptive resolution, its fractal edges failing to accommodate ever more bodies. Disability, as scholars have long pointed out, is precisely what cannot be unified, describes nothing shared, has no family resemblance, “no one form of embodiment or orientation of being in the world” (Kuppers 2009, 233). If an epistemology of the home can teach us anything, it is that people are – different, they “misfit” the different romances of belonging on offer in various and never entirely foreseeable ways. A “misfit” occurs “when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it” (Garland-Thompson, 2011, 594). The notion picks up on an incongruence between persons and environments, it treats disability as a material reality, but rather than attributing it to the bodies, it investigates the failure of physical and social structures to accommodate them.
There is no “universal design” for belonging – neither architecturally nor socially nor politically. Aspirations to create it will only double down on violent normalization of misfitting bodies. The desire to effect belonging might thus say more about the ongoing “redemptive fix/ation[s]” of our society than about the potentials of overcoming unbelonging (Betcher 2016, 102). Rather than romantically pursuing our longing for belonging, negative “public feelings” might gainfully direct our attention to specific sites, shapes, and experiences of unbelonging.
“Those who are not quite at home,” muses queer feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed, “have much to teach us about the way things are built” (Ahmed 2019:19). Those who are “not-quite-at-home” in the new and old visions of belonging might have much to teach us about the romances of home and about keeping faith with “damaged life,” about inhabiting a world in which the “wholeness” that marks any of our romances with the home is at best a fleeting experience, which requires force, coercion, and ultimately violence if we try to fix and sustain it. They can teach us that pain is not an “argument against existence” or a form of materialized lack or guilt that must be isolated and excised, but that pain is a signal, it is that which “puts us on notice” to the corporeal reality of interdependence and vulnerability that we all share, even as they appear always in highly unequal distribution. Instead of focusing on fixing the bodies and souls of those who do not quite belong, we might insist on “changing the shape of the world,” of our material and social environments to accommodate their existence and their insights (Garland-Thomson 2011, 597).
Ahmed, Sara. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2019.
Augustine. Confessions. Penguin Classics, 1961.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Betcher, Sharon V. “Crip/Tography: Disability Theology in the Ruins of God.” JCRT 15, no. 2 (2016): 98–115.
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Milestones of Thought in the History of Ideas. New York: Ungar, 1957.
Hägglund, Martin. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Reprint edition. New York (N.Y.): Anchor, 2020.
Kuppers, Petra. “Toward a Rhizomatic Model of Disability: Poetry, Performance, and Touch.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3 (December 1, 2009): 221–40. https://doi.org/10.1353/jlc.0.0022
Johan Liekens is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Architecture at KU Leuven, Belgium.
We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the conference presentation by the author.
Revealing Wickedness of Home
On the moist, bare soil within the belly of the Drongenhof Chapel, itself tucked away in one of the city of Ghent’s remnant medieval neighborhoods, a particular interior setting was temporarily grafted. As in George Perec’s interpretation of Antonello Da Messina’s painting Saint Jerome in His Study, that setting as a study inquired and mediated ideas on habitation. This time though such mediation would not merely connect to a spatial inscription in what Perec (1974) has identified as the bare and glacial surroundings constituted by a chapel’s empty belly. On the contrary, and venturing from an architectural perspective, the mediation would reveal aspects of (in-)(co-)habitation in a post-anthropocentric world; an era of climatological emergency wherein New Materialism perspectives encourage an engagement and entanglement with matter conceived as vital and vibrant (Bennet 2010), a parliament of things (Latour 1991), and a multi-species community (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017, 2020) such as the conglomerate matter of the living soil on which the setting rested1. More than mediating home, the setting thus revealed wicked but inherent and fully real aspects of home.
The Wicked Home has been a transdisciplinary academic design office (ADO) set up by Nel Janssens, Rachel Armstrong, Rolf Hughes, Laurens Luyten, Annelies De Smet and myself, running from 2019 until 2022. ADOs at our Faculty2 are conceived as vehicles oriented on contemporary challenges raised to the disciplines of architecture, interior-architecture, and urbanism approaching these through a combination of research-, design-, and educational practices. With ADOs, our Faculty wants to create new formats and possibilities for research outputs in Architecture.
Pairing the seemingly contradictory aspects of home and wickedness, home — (in-)(co-)habitation — in all its complexity has been the recurrent focus of our ADO. While the aspect of wickedness, with etymological ties to the old English Wicca and so to the notion of witchcraft, refers to more daring ways of exploring, we interpret it also as relating to the notion of wicked problems. Problems that are, as the home is, challenges with an irreducible complexity. In our ADO we thus examined the irreducible complexity of forms of home, one aspect of this being the entanglement with more-and-other-than-human matters, actants, and worlds. Six research-by-design master studios have been developed as part of our ADO investigation, all of them having been affected by the pandemic situation, which compelled us to stay home and work in the ADO became thinking from within that home.
S for Soil Times
The setting, which we grafted in and on the Chapel’s soil, and on which we would serve food for thought as well as food for more literal digestion at the occasion of the academic seminar and public event titled Revelations: Wicked Home, drew on an artefact – reforesting and composting cabin – produced as part of a research line titled 26 Toilets to Re-figure Habitation (De Smet et al. 2022). This research line had been set up in the research group Architecture & Wicked Matters. The research line would ultimately assemble as a wicked alphabet, in its set-up inspired by Peter Greenaway’s Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms (1985). Venturing from the architectural element toilet, an element that as AMO’s3 publication Elements of Architecture (Koolhaas 2018) has stipulated never founded any architectural treatise; the method would be to counteract that ascertainment through a research-by-design approach, ultimately spawning 26 intertwining architectural artefacts that intend to refigure architecture. The artefact (ab-)used for the setting was S for Soil Times (Figure 1), its name referring to the eponymous chapter in Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care (2017). That chapter calls for involvements with soil and with the soil communities we are inherently but unconsciously part of, explaining also our affiliation with the Chapel’s specific characteristics lacking its original floor tiling and hence opening up its soils.
On route to its ultimate destination —a prairie in the Semois valley— where the artefact will perform as a reforesting and composting cabin, S for Soil Times will travel through and connect to a variety of events and contexts. The ADO ending-event Revelations: Wicked Home served as a first halt. As a design, S for Soil Times substantiated during the recent period of lockdowns, in which one was compelled to stay home. In exile on a prairie close to the Semois river, functioning as an extension to the crammed city life at that time, I spent time scything grass worlds and taking care of soil and trees. Gradually the idea developed to construct a minimal place of sojourn allowing me to stay on the prairie for longer periods. Thinking about what was minimally necessary, the architectural element toilet came to structure the intervention, covering an ultimately concrete and basal need. Beyond function, the idea was to reorient, through the artefact’s agency, the idea of human presence as a burden on the landscape and steer it towards a mutual relationship of caretaking.
Populated by majestic but dying Ash trees, a species typical of streamlet valleys that in the nearby future will become extinct due to a particular sickness, which along globalist movements of building materials spreads across Europe, to me the prairie itself increasingly became a matter of care. My human presence needed to be not one of occupation and burden only but of mutual collaboration and cohabitation with the more-than-human ecology of prairie and valley. A reforesting and composting tower gained shape. In it, two small interior rooms —one containing a dry compost toilet, the other that I call a library of composting matters— are connected by a central passage volume, with doors on each side that fold open onto the landscape. When opened up, passing through that volume visitors or passers-by can traverse the streamlet and reach the other sloping side of the valley. The two interior rooms are sites of soil production. Asides toilet literature such as Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care (2017) and Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016), the so-called library of composting matters will contain maturing night soil from the compost toilet. Becoming soil over time, this matter will be used to nurture newly planted tree seedlings, as part of the planned small reforestation project. Over these two interior rooms, a dim and dancing light will hover, propelled by the rhythm of the irregular flowing streamlet with its own will from which it harvests its energy. In the middle of the tower, when closed, one finds a place to spend the night: one human captured in an unexpected cohabitation with the community of biota vitalizing the composting process. Having large ventilation hatches that mimic typologies of tobacco drying towers typical of the valley, and with a balcony reminiscent of observation towers found close by and allowing for vistas on the dying as well as vital landscape, the reforesting and composting tower blends in in the valley’s ecology.
A mock-up on scale one to one of S for Soil Times was as said ab-used to present the ADO vernissage event Revelations: Wicked Home (Figure 2,3). On its folding doors tilted in a horizontal position, matters as food and more figuratively food for thought and discussion with peers were served in the context of an academic seminar, and later on presented in a broader public event. Around and on the horizontally tilted door-tables Annelies De Smet developed an intriguing performance, first carefully serving fragments of student work produced within the ADO, mingling them with food substances and raising ambiguity between architecture and food by serving edible architectural model elements, which were re-composed on site by one of the ADO students Liese Mortreu. With the architectural element of the toilet nearby, serving food and food for thought on that table was in a wicked but natural proximity with aspects of digesting and composting, tampering with usual and accepted distinctions between proper and improper; between being valuable and waste or dirt. Rolf Hughes and Rachel Armstrong would recite sets of revelations, each of them connecting to an aspect of the ADO, the space we found ourselves in, or the work produced by the students. One of these revelations, Revelation 14:15, advanced the chapel floor’s vital materiality as a biological city that in ongoing circular processes produces soil.
In the space of this blog post only three student projects, which were served, are shortly presented to give an idea of the spectrum of home that was addressed in the ADO.
In her design project that ran in the pandemic era of lockdowns and isolation, Liese Mortreu ventured from the identification of the kitchens in the homes of the Anthropocene as isolated clean and capsular entities (Figure 4). Connections to the home’s environment are usually consciously hidden in them, tucking away infrastructures in the home’s periphery, further connecting them to hidden gargantuan collective networks, which weigh on our environment and soils. Many other infrastructures are hidden in the home as well; as the production of food in unknown places connecting to the home only by schemes of global transportation. This conscious hiding of relationships, according to Mortreu, renders the ecological consequences of our everyday choices and practices hard to grasp, and as such obstructs our understanding of their impact. Venturing from her own kitchen in which she found herself isolated during the design work, by drawing, making models, and diving into related literature, a speculative and projective design trajectory was developed. The design trajectory reconsiders those relationships between home/kitchen and environment. Moving away from the concept of the Modern kitchen, she advances the kitchen more as a construction, a system, which (re)relates elements and agents within an expanded landscape. The kitchen becomes advanced as a metabolism that is reconstructed both in its physical, social, and psychological dimensions. A metabolism that is able to create its own space with its own sets of values. In Mortreu’s project, the kitchen is constructed through specific and real acts of food making: purifying the water, making fire from food scraps, making smoked fish, ginger tea, and pickled cucumbers. Intensively observed relationships, choreographies, and movement patterns in and between these acts of food making, as well as the kitchen’s retrofitted and re-related elements such as water, fire, and garden feed new kitchen dialogues. They compose new concentrations as well as conflicts. What really sets the kitchen apart from the Modern idea of kitchen, Mortreu emphasizes, are the values its inhabitants handle, situating these values in social and natural wealth rather than efficiency or economy and manifesting more in the form of authentic relations, as they can only exist in the intimate context of a real home. Through a set of compelling kitchen stories, inspired by the structure of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, these values reveal themselves in accumulation, expanding as such the realm of kitchen imaginaries. They do so, to give one example, by introducing to that realm also other-and-more-than-human perspectives. Agencies such as that of a cohabitant cat and bird or the living matter of the composting pile of food waste that, as a multispecies community of biota, is cared for and in turn cares for life within the home. This by growing herbs and producing for example small voltages of electricity. The kitchen as such becomes a speculative and projective platform for a desired ecological change, ecology here referring also to the substantiation of a web of relations, in which small changes in the inhabitant’s everyday practices relate to and resonate with the whole system.
A second work by Jade Goossens (Figure 5) addressed a similar complexity and wickedness of habitation. Isolated in a home that is part of an industrial compound, embedded in a vast intermediate natural landscape of unplanned trees, plants, grasses, and ponds. From early on in the project, Jade started to devise instruments that endeavor to approach other-and-more-than-human entities with which humans cohabit and collaborate in making home home. She created an unfinished series of interior-architectural artefacts that, due to the lockdown situation, were made from materials found on site. A sofa to embed oneself in the multispecies community of a compost heap; a mixture of ladder and seat allowing her to become acquainted with the biotope of a tree’s crown. Her most compelling instrument though was the chair/ladder/pier assemblage, with a built in bell jar that can provide home for water surface insects, the overall structure allowing her to balance over and into a pond. Seated on this instrument, and carefully moving forward while seeking balance on and with the pond’s vital matter, limits between human and more-than-human become explored as well as stretched, the human feet fusing with the lively matter from the pond, always in risk of completely tipping over into that vital and vibrant, other and yet unknown materiality.
A third work by Laurens Decoster, brought to the table accompanied by the penetrating smell of sea, presented an experiment of producing sets of large concrete pillars, ultimately evolving in the design project towards a pavilion on sea. Laurens’ work ventures from the fact that many of our human-made sea-structures, often executed in heavy and little porous concrete, are structures that fundamentally hamper colonies of marine biological life to settle. Inscribing himself in a multidisciplinary team including marine biologists, Laurens experimented with concrete masses and textures, part of the work also being the leaving to the sea of these structures, the monitoring of them, and as a result of his actions, the entering into conversation with specialists as well as passers-by on what is home and (in-)(co-)habitation in a context of multispecies communities.
Serving to our guests substantial fragments of projects and concepts that had been developed in the ADO, we wrapped up four years of collaborating on The Wicked Home. A matter of serving diverse and deviant senses of home within a home within a home. Senses of home produced by young (interior-)architects, served on the tilted table-doors and within the small interior rooms of S for Soil Times, served itself on the lively soil over which the Drongenhof Chapel seems to hover.
 These interpretations of matter as being vibrant and having a —political— voice and action potential within congregations of human and non-human “matters” relate to the contemporary currents of New Materialism, Post-Humanism, and Post-Anthropocentrism. These share an understanding of reality that repositions or de-centralizes the human among nonhuman matters beyond traditional humanist boundaries. They all qualify questions of vitality, agency, and generative capability as being appropriate for human and nonhuman matter alike.
 The Academic Design Office (ADO) is a vehicle developed at the KU Leuven Faculty of Architecture, Campus Sint-Lucas (BE). Our particular ADO The Wicked Home has been initially formulated from the research group Material Narratives, subgroup Architecture & Wicked Matters, and has been co-run by members of the Regenerative Architecture, Arts & Design research group.
 AMO is the research section of the architectural office OMA led by Rem Koolhaas.
Bennet, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
De Smet, A., Johan Liekens, Nel Janssens, and Manon Persoone. 2022. “Architecting Twenty-six Toilets to Re-figure Inhabitation: J for Jewel, S for Soil Times, T for Thigmophilia”. In: CA²RE 2: Evaluation of Design-Driven Research, (288-301).
Joanne Begiato is Associate Dean and Professor at the School of History at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom.
We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the keynote lecture by the author.
Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain
The crisis of lockdown in 2020/2021 changed our real and imagined relationships with home. As a historian of the home, I am struck by the ways in which crises also shaped ideas and experiences of home in the past. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, for example, war and rapid social and economic change, and the dislocation they caused, placed the home at the heart of personal and cultural reflection.
It is the emotional associations of the home that especially interest me. In the centuries I study, homes were freighted with feelings. They were often used as sentimental prompts to elicit emotional responses that bound people to family, locality, region, or nation, or to generate gendered notions of duty, patriotism, and sacrifice in the service of the state. People from all social groups also used the home and the emotions it produced to make meaning of their life trajectories and construct a sense of self and a public persona. Furthermore, as sites of emotional expression, love, desire, anger, fear, despair, and hope, homes were agentic emotionalised spaces that shaped and influenced behaviour, activities, and actions. This blog post focuses on just a few of these themes through men’s relationship with the home and through the themes of distant homes, men’s absence from the home, and men’s presence within the home.
People often used spatial and temporal distance from home, and the emotions that this stirred, to assess their sense of self, understand their feelings, and construct selfhood and personal identities. My work (2023) on the emotions cluster of loneliness, itself a by-product of modernity, offers evidence of this. The writings of two young Scotsmen who left home to embark on their careers show that both the sense of a ‘distant’ home and encountering distance within other people’s homes contributed to loneliness and its physical and mental problems. At around the age of twenty-two, though separated by two decades, Henry Robert Oswald Senior (1790–1862) and John Dunlop (1823–1867), each spent several months writing a journal as they embarked on the early stages of their careers. Oswald wrote between 1812–13, describing his first six months as Government Surgeon to John Murray (1755–1830), 4th duke of Atholl, Governor General of the Isle of Man, and Dunlop recorded his experiences from 21 October 1845 to 8 August 1846, first as a medical student in Paris and then on his voyage to India after he secured the post of Assistant Surgeon to the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot.
At the end of 1845, John Dunlop recorded that he was leaving Paris, where he was a medical student, and would be ‘gazetted to an assistant Surgery in her Majesty’s service’. While he ‘rejoiced’ about this, he was uneasy about its implications:
“I was also not ignorant that this summons to London would sever that delightful tie of domestic life, which I had so long enjoyed, that it would launch me forth into the world, and into the uncertain and adventurous life of a military surgeon, where separated from home and all its endearing connections I would require to form a home within my own circle, and in the narrow confines of a small quarter in a barrack, where I must live, all independent and isolated amidst the vicissitudes of a foreign climate and perhaps a foreign war.”
Dunlop understood his professional future to be ‘uncertain’, a state that causes anxiety and was compounded by his separation from domestic family life. He deployed happy, loving domesticity to envisage his potential loneliness, a pervasive cultural motif, which John Tosh has shown, shaped many middle-class men’s sense of self.
It was the emotional and physical distance that Henry Oswald encountered when obliged to board at his patrons’ homes, which led to his feelings of social isolation, physical and mental discomfort, and alienation. When living in their homes, he assessed them according to the patrons’ kindness but also through the provision of food and space. As scholars of loneliness have observed, loneliness is felt in the body and, thus, metaphors of heat are often invoked to capture or convey its impact. Home was crucial in these metaphors too. Oswald associated coldness with indifference, the opposite of the warmth of domestic comforts. Thus the family of his master George Bell showed him a cold heart in 1810, while the Farmer family were ‘coldly polite’ in March 1813, which left him feeling ‘indifferent or rather displeased’. After some months, Oswald took up his own lodgings and was reunited with his trunk that had gone missing on his journey to the Isle of Man. He discussed this good fortune through the tropes of home comfort, signalling the waning of his acute feelings of loneliness:
“27th January spent the day as usual, walking & got my trunk, which has been long waiting, safely, the packet containing books – & dined at Home on beef steaks & ale & spent the eve in reading & noting & arranging accounts & expenditures with much comfort & satisfaction.”
Being reunited with his possessions soothed Oswald, acting as ‘emotional objects’ to convey the sense of home and comfort that he had hitherto lacked (Begiato 2018a).
Like many other people in a similar situation, Dunlop found solace in nostalgia, both for his family home and its inhabitants. He consoled himself on his long voyage by recognising that after an absence he could ‘return and enjoy the society of my dear parents, and as a melancholy solace, shall look back as on a pleasant dream, on the happy days of childhood, and a youth spent under the tender care of an affectionate mother and the careful guidance of a kind Father’. Indeed, nostalgia was a tool that was often used to manage the spatial, but also the temporal, distance from home, a way to navigate modernity’s temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. In its early, medicalised form, the condition was a response to spatial displacement and was thus diagnosed in soldiers and migrants who were unable to access their homes. The second type of nostalgia was temporal, where the sense of disruption was due to time passing and the yearning directed to a past lost in time.
Remembering a happy childhood home was fundamental in this latter version of nostalgia, and for memoirists writing in old age or at the end of their lives, the material, emotional, and sensory memories of the happy childhood home were central to constructions of the self and to articulating national and personal identities in the face of accelerating migration and mobility. For the generations writing in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was the natal or childhood home and its natural environs that was most evocative and reassuring (Begiato 2019).
Thomas Bewick (1753-1823) offers one example. The son of a tenant farmer and collier in Northumberland, this celebrated naturalist and engraver, whose works were widely read by children and adults, began his memoir in 1822. He lovingly evoked his parental home at Cherryburn, Mickley, in the South Tyne Valley: “Cherryburn House the place of my nativity, and which for many years my eyes beheld with cherished delight”. When he left home, and until his parents died when he was in his early thirties, he walked every week from his workshop to visit them. As a nationally successful engraver, his happy natal home was part of his regional, Northumbrian ‘natural’ sense of self, which was constructed as a rejection of a metropolitan identity.
These writers used the term ‘happy’ home, projecting onto it their anxieties and taking solace in it when separated by space and time. But what did society consider made a home happy or unhappy? Unsurprisingly, women’s actions were deemed enormously significant through their upkeep of the home, and they were held responsible for their husbands’ encounters with it and subsequent behaviour in it. But it was frequently men who were seen as the primary catalyst for the home’s emotional register, forging ‘happy’ homes not only through their economic provision and frugality, but also through kindness and displays of love and affection.
Absent from Home
For all their cultural centrality to the happy home, representations often imagined men as physically absent from it, working and providing for it, or defending it and fighting for it (Begiato 2015; Brown and Begiato 2019). As such, it was often their absence that society and culture imagined, depicting them leaving and returning home, dreaming and yearning for it, forever on the peripheries of the happy home. Labouring men and military men were most often depicted leaving home, the former standing on their cottage doorstep, the latter the subject of countless Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Farewells. In most of these, happy homes were only glimpsed, functioning as spaces of emotion and sentiment. This sentimental trope of the home and its absent master was especially valorised during periods of war, a response to unsettled times and crisis. When the idealised military man left his home and family to serve the nation, his sentimental manly form stirred patriotism through his self-sacrifice (Begiato 2020).
Absent men were also expected to yearn and long for home, to be psychologically and emotionally inseparable from it. This is seen in the cultural figure of the homesick soldier, where nostalgia was at first a medical condition and then by the mid nineteenth century an expression of patriotic manly self-sacrifice. Such men were intended to retain, moreover, what we can call an ‘absent presence’ in their home. Visual and material culture entreated men’s loved ones to ‘forget me not’ and ‘remember me’. These pleas were often printed on decorative objects in the home. One common verse on vessels variously dated from the 1830s through to the 1860s, was taken from Bernard Barton’s (1784–1849) poem ‘The Heart’s Motto: “Forget Me Not”’ (1820s).
Men’s Presence in the Home
While men were often envisaged away from home, depictions of their presence within the home were ambivalent. For all that working-class men were urged, as the British Workman declared in 1861 ‘to make “home” the happiest spot on earth’, their presence within the home was often characterised as disruptive, even violent. Indeed, ‘Unhappy Home’ was a typical title for reports of marital violence. Like the happy home, it was imagined through the material culture of the home, with pictures and cartoons from the mid-nineteenth century showing the violent husband as a large figure dominating the domestic environment, destroying its comfort, shattering ornaments, and turning over furniture. Men’s presence in the home in these accounts represented a threat, especially in those with a moral message about alcohol consumption, where the drunk husband was the most disruptive force (Begiato 2018b, 2006).
This is because the spaces of home, whatever the scale of that dwelling, were imbued with and directed by patriarchy, which structured both household forms and relationships. Homes could become sites of tension that encouraged spouses, particularly husbands, to assert physical and metaphorical dominance. As geographers have shown us, the space of the home was transformed by domestic violence and by the presence of the abuser, from a haven to a place of terror. Indeed, the home itself – when a man was present – acted as an agentic force, since its spaces and objects shaped marital violence as an act and an idea. This is seen acutely in the ways in which men were able to eject wives from homes and attack and confine them in specific rooms, as well as through the spaces of refuge which wives sought out.
Beds and stairs featured regularly in court cases as spaces in which abusive husbands attacked their wives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bed was not a private space in any social class, due to its centrality to several life cycle functions related to childbed, sickbed, and deathbed. The convergence within the bed of various activities, emotions, and symbolic meanings could be toxic. Indeed, the bed was a space over which spouses sought to exert marital control. The descriptions of Joseph Bentley’s violence reveal that it was often enacted around or upon the bed. On 6 April 1844, Mary Bentley and her cousin gave up waiting for Mary’s husband, Joseph, to return home, and each retired to her bed. When the drunken Joseph came to Mary’s bedside in the early hours, swearing and insisting she rose, she fled to her cousin’s bed. Joseph followed, threatening to pull her out of bed and tear-off the hangings if she did not get up and then punched her with ‘clenched or doubled fist’. On another occasion in the presence of a servant, he slapped Mary in the face and dragged her from the bed by the feet. Joseph Bentley used extreme violence not only to subordinate his wife, but to reassert his power over the home and its servants, which he perceived Mary to threaten.
Court cases also show that men of all social ranks attacked wives on stairs, throwing them down, dragging them up, or pursuing them as they tried to escape. Violence spilled over into these spaces of the home, transforming them into a place of fear, because they were points of communication between rooms, and, in multi-resident buildings, they were points of egress. Thus, stairs spatially symbolised wives’ potential for independence from their husbands and seem to have been sites that especially antagonised controlling men. Such men were exerting their dominance not only physically, but metaphorically too: the stairs were shaping their thoughts and actions.
The home’s contents took on similar power and court cases frequently detail men’s destruction of an array of domestic objects in the home. One example will suffice. In 1842, Margaret Doolen took Sarah Williamson to the doctor after Sarah’s husband, Robert, hit her with a poker. On Sarah’s departure, neighbours ‘overheard a noise like the breaking of crockery’ from the Williamsons’ room along with Robert declaring: “I will let them see who is master in this house”. Robert used domestic objects to commit his violence, but they were not simply an extension of Sarah’s body, or a substitute upon which Robert took out his anger; they were also the target of his violence and way he asserted his dominance. Like the spaces of the home, objects marked out individuals, relationships, and emotions and thus provoked actions as well as thoughts. As symbols they also helped construct discourses about class, violence, and gender. As things they catalysed violent men’s emotions and acts.
As we realised during Covid lockdowns, homes are profoundly defined by emotions, as well as through our willing, or enforced, presence in, or absence and distance from them. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes were also conceived of and experienced through emotions and spaces. Just as now, unfortunately, this was structurally unequal, determined by wealth, social class, gender, and ethnicity. History and recent experience converge, it seems to me, to show that the home is the most significant physical and conceptual phenomenon shaping human behaviour.
Brown, Michael and Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Visualising the aged veteran in nineteenth-century Britain: Memory, masculinity and nation.” In Martial Masculinities: Experiencing and Imagining the Military in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Michael Brown, Anna-Maria Barry, and Joanne Begiato, 102-138. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://www.manchesterhive.com/view/9781526135636/9781526135636.00012.xml
This blog post is written by Marie Stender and Lene Wiell Nordberg.
Marie Stender is an anthropologist and senior researcher in the Department of the Built Environment at Aalborg University, Denmark.
Lene Wiell Nordberg is an architect and researcher in the Department of the Built Environment at Aalborg University, Denmark.
We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home’ in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the conference presentation by the authors.
Pandemic stigma, stuckness, and social infrastructure
Covid-19 was not equally distributed among neighbourhoods in Denmark. The neighbourhoods on the Government’s so-called “parallel society list” were recurrently pointed out as “Corona ghettos” with high levels of infection and long-term lockdowns.1 Both the media and politicians were especially concerned with how people in such neighbourhoods live in crowded homes or have “deviant” cultural norms and social conventions, hence contesting their ways of residing and living. But how did the residents in these areas actually handle being stuck in their (sometimes crowded) homes, and what was the impact of the pandemic on the stigmatization and social infrastructure of these neighbourhoods? Based on architectural-anthropological fieldwork in a range of neighbourhoods on the “parallel society list” during and after the pandemic, we focus on how the Covid-19 lockdown was experienced from within.
Our study is part of the RESPOND research project financed by Realdania Foundation that focuses on long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on everyday life and the built environment in Denmark.2 Previous pandemics have had considerable impact on architecture, urban planning, and the built environment, thus we are interested in whether this will also be the case with Covid-19, and in what we can learn from the lockdown periods. When the virus spread and caused a global state of emergency, we were already involved in an ongoing long-term research project following the 15 areas that were formerly listed as “hard ghettos”.3 In some of these areas, we had to postpone fieldwork, but in others, we did fieldwork during the pandemic lockdown. This complicated our fieldwork tasks, as we had to conduct interviews outdoors or over the telephone, but it was also an opportunity to zoom in on how the pandemic was experienced and handled by people in these neighbourhoods. Therefore, we decided to do an extra case study as part of the Respond project, focusing on what we can learn from the pandemic’s state of emergency – especially in relation to stigmatization, social infrastructure, and pandemic stuckness.
The media coverage of neighbourhoods on the “parallel society list” is generally dominated by negative stories (Mechlenborg & Stender 2022). Our analysis of media clips shows that during Covid-19, the negative media coverage of several of these neighbourhoods increased significantly. In the media and political debate, density, behaviour, and cultural norms were often pointed out as problematic aspects of these areas during the pandemic. Gellerup was one of the areas that had increased negative media coverage during the pandemic. Together with Vollsmose, this neighbourhood is often used by the media and politicians as a prime example of a “ghetto”, generating media attention also in stories that do not specifically relate to that exact place (Mechlenborg and Stender 2022). Several politicians thus refered to Gellerup and Vollsmose during the pandemic. Some of the leading stories pointed at the behaviour among the Somali community in Gellerup as problematic, reinforcing the existing stigmatized image of “a parallel society” with residents of “deviant” cultural norms. The residents we interviewed were frustrated with this; some argued that the problem was not a matter of ethnicity but rather related to how they live, thereby pushing the stigma from the ethnic group to the built environment. As one man from the Somali community in Gellerup said:
“The infection rates peaked at times due to how we live: People live on several floors, and they use the same elevator, cough, sneeze, and then the next one gets infected. And then he goes home to his family and everyone there is infected. That’s how it is, when you live like this… Not because of your brown skin…There was some bad publicity – 15 minutes of fame for the usual politicians. They disgrace minorities because we are 100 people attending a funural, but afterwards they post photos from a social event they attended themselves… But apart from the stigmatization, it actually also created better collaboration within the area – we helped dispel rumours and misinformation. A Corona-task force was established to provide information.”
As this resident stressed, the pandemic did not only have negative consequences but also occasioned new types of collaboration between the housing society and the residents. In several cases, the risk of public stigmatization even fuelled such initiatives. Ringparken was one of the few areas that managed to change the negative media coverage to a more positive one during the pandemic. Here, the housing organization and volunteers were determined to create positive stories as they started several initiatives and helped each other. For example, volunteers gathered to clean the playground and all the stairs in the neighbourhood twice a week and gifts were handed out to infected residents. These efforts generated several positive media stories.
Even though the pandemic increased stigmatization of the neighbourhoods, it also in some cases strengthened or mobilized the communities, networks, and social resources that may otherwise remain unnoticed. Both as a response to – and prevention of stigmatizing media coverage, but also as a way of handling issues of infection and isolation. This can be seen as a matter of social infrastructure.
Social infrastructure is typically defined as public institutions and places like libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, sports facilities, courtyards, sidewalks, and recreational areas (Klinenberg 2018). All the places where we gather and meet each other. We know from our studies in these areas that many residents depend more on welfare services and local networks than in other neighbourhoods. Most social infrastructure of this type was however temporarily closed during the pandemic lockdown, and all organized social activities were cancelled. This makes the importance of such infrastructure even more evident. As Star (1999) points out, social infrastructure tends to be invisible until it breaks down. The lockdown thus made the social infrastructure more visible. In a recent article (Stender & Nordberg 2022), we map social infrastructure in three neighbourhoods before and during Covid‐19. The mapping shows that different (but existing) meeting places were activated during lockdowns, and that digital platforms were used to support social networks.
Physical places like stairs, corridors, and laundry rooms acquired a new meaning as meeting places and spaces for exchanging help. But also informal social networks, often mediated by phones, Facebook, and other apps were critical. In Ringparken a new telephone line offered grocery shopping to the elderly, and in Mjølnerparken, WhatsApp was used to make daily competitions (for instance: count the number of stairs to the fourth floor) among a group of women. Formal social infrastructure is essential in these areas, but the pandemic has underlined the need to pay more attention to the spaces that are part of daily routines closely related to the private spaces. Our research corroborates that technological platforms can activate these spaces and support social networks, thereby generating informal social infrastructure.
Though these informal spaces and social networks are of great importance, it is crucial to note that they do not necessarily include everyone. Not all residents participated in these new creative ways of socializing, and for many the lockdowns were mainly about being stuck at home. Steiner and Veel (2021) coin the concept of pandemic stuckness as the experience of being stuck to places, stuck to things, stuck to people, who may be simultaneously subservient, caring, exploitative, and exploited. As they argue, this stuckness tells us something about the limits of our relationships to things, places, economies, and each other. Indeed, it is a sign of our dependencies on embodying conditions and on social relations.
To many residents, this stuckness was a frustrating and even tragic experience that has left lasting imprint. As a social worker in Mjølnerparken describes it: “Some were forced to stay home, and it went bananas. Conflicts at home escalate when you are forced to stay together. So now there is work to be done… For instance the children who took refuge in the screen: now they are just not used to go out and get fresh air and social relations.” Other groups of children and youngsters almost got stuck in the outdoor areas, which to some people was experienced as problematic, as this elderly resident explains: “It (youngsters hanging out) has become worse due to Corona, as they cannot go to the club. So, they hang out here and vandalise….The children have been out of school, and that is something you can really feel.”
This situation with the youngsters hanging out illustrates that it was not just families but also the neighbourhood and community as such that could feel the breakdown of infrastructures like schools and clubs.
Residents in these areas were stuck within the walls of the home, but also behind national borders. This goes for all of us, of course, as travelling was not possible during the lockdowns. Yet this had especially grave consequences for people who have close family relations in other parts of the world. As the illustrations in a publication from the University of Copenhagen exemplifies (Jeppesen et al. 2021), some residents were frustrated about being separated from family members or not being able to attend weddings in their country of origin. Others were afraid to fall ill and die, especially as they could then not get buried in their country of origin.
The analytical consequences of this stuckness are twofold. On one level, the pandemic has taught us that we should take advantage of the freedom of movement to leave the home as we like. On another, more fundamental level, the pandemic lockdown was an occasion to study how the phenomemon of “home” extends beyond the physical boundaries of the dwelling unit and the social ties of the family. The home is linked to and depends on other spaces and social relations. Just like social infrastructure tends to be invisible until it breaks down (Star 1999), the lockdown made visible the home’s links, dependencies, and relations that might otherwise have remained unnoticed.
3 The ’parallel society list’ was previously called ’the ghetto list’ and a number of housing areas were even listed as ’hard ghettos’. In 2018, new legislation called the Parallel Society Agreement (PSA) was passed, introducing new measures such as evictions, tenure mix, and targeted demolition aimed at opening these areas towards the surrounding society and obtaining a more socially balanced composition of residents.
Klinenberg, E. 2018. Palaces for the people: How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarisation, and the decline of civic life. London: Penguin Press.
Mechlenborg, M., and Stender, M. 2022. “Holes in the spaces of the welfare state: Media coverage and residents’ responses in the so-called hardest ghettos in Denmark”. In Space of the Danish Welfare: 1970-Present, edited by Raahauge, K., Lotz, K., Simpson, D. and Søberg, M., 160-174. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers.
On February 9th 2021, Rod Ponton, a county attorney in Presidio County, Texas, entered the 394th Judicial District Court room remotely via Zoom for a routine civil forfeiture case hearing. However, what ensued was anything but ‘normal’ with the lawyer appearing on screen as a talking kitten, unable to establish how to turn off a digital filter unknowingly applied to his camera feed. Immediately following the event, a video that is less than one minute long capturing this interaction went viral on the internet and ends with Ponton proclaiming the now iconic line, “I’m here live, I’m not a cat.”1 While highly amusing, this event highlights the blurring in conventional boundaries between professional / personal and public / private that many people have experienced due to an increased use of videotelephony since the start of the Covid-19 flu pandemic. This breach in established boundaries between public and private has become an everyday occurrence for many people that have had to work remotely from the confines of their home. During the 2nd quarter of 2020 alone, 40% of Danish employees were required to work remotely from their homes, with this statistic rising to an unprecedented 75% within the capital region of Copenhagen.2 With this in mind, we might ask, what has living, and working through successive lockdowns taught us about the boundaries, or perhaps more precisely, the ‘frontiers’3 between the domestic interior and the world outside?
The SARS-CoV-2 virus and the subsequent social restrictions that have been introduced globally with the intention of reducing the spread of its resulting disease Covid-19, have drastically disrupted our daily lives and domestic practices. Many activities, previously reserved for the public domain, such as working, educating, dating, fitness training, job interviews and, as we have seen above, even legal case hearings have suddenly had to take place remotely, within the home. Videotelephony platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime & Skype have become the dominant forms of communication between the domestic interior and the world outside. This ‘intrusion’4 into the home of digital devices, such as PCs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, which support these videotelephony platforms have made the boundaries between inside / outside, exterior / interior, public / private & work / home more porous.
Voyeurism, Vanity & Videotelephony
With the increased use of videotelephony vividly observed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,5 many people have experienced a greater public intrusion into their private homes while working remotely. This has placed greater scrutiny on our domestic interiors, décor and the personal belongings displayed within. Since the start of the pandemic, emerging phenomena have highlighted a simultaneous interest from the spectator and a concern by the voyeur for the ‘public’ display of the ‘private’ interior. Suddenly, topics such as voyeurism and vanity have become highly relevant when discussing these ‘threshold conjunctures’ between the home and the world outside that have been heightened by successive lockdowns. Representative examples of this are the Twitter accounts, ‘Room Rater’ and ‘Bookcase Credibility’, both established during the first lockdown in April 2020, with the latter’s sub-title being, “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”6 As the name suggests, ‘Room Rater’ allows the public to scrutinise the lighting, composition and content of other peoples’ videocall backdrops and then assign them a score out of 10, while ‘Bookcase Credibility’s’ thread contains an extensive archive of screenshots from videocalls where bookcases have played a prominent role. The composition and contents of these bookcases are then meticulously studied and critiqued by an avid and loyal group of Twitter users. Since the start of the Covid-19 flu pandemic and the establishment of lockdowns globally, one could say that the bookshelf has emerged as the preferred backdrop by public figures for conveying a sense of intellectual authority.7
Acts of voyeurism and vanity on the boundaries of the home are far from novel subjects when discussing the domestic interior. The academic and art historian, Linda Stone-Ferrier reflects upon thresholds between the domestic interior and the surrounding neighbourhood in the text, ‘Glimpses, Glances, and Gossip: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings of Domestic Interiors on Their Neighbourhood’s Doorstep’ (2020). By highlighting the importance of social interactions on the threshold between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood observed in paintings from the time, Stone-Ferrier challenges the presumption that there was a firm ‘borderline’ that distinguished the private from the public sphere in Dutch society. Of particular interest to Stone-Ferrier are the ‘voorhuis’, or front reception rooms that supported acts of commerce with the surrounding neighbourhood and that functioned as a stage for the private display of personal belongings intended for public scrutiny. Typical of the ‘voorhuis’ were distinctly designed windows and door openings, together with interior mirrored devices that were used to facilitate a reciprocal display / voyeurism between inside and outside. These open doors, windows and mirrored devices functioned as a ‘liminal’ intersection, occupying both sides of the threshold, which “served as the bridge, rather than boundary, between home and street.” (Stone-Ferrier, 2020, p. 29). Within the context of Stone-Ferrier’s study, these thresholds between the home and the neighbourhood are reinterpreted as a vital fluid discourse, rather than as finite boundaries, where the domestic interior was an essential part of its surrounding context. Stone-Ferrier’s reinterpretation of the ‘voorhuis’ and its various specular ‘threshold’ devices can provide us with useful insights on the contemporary phenomenon of remote working from home via videotelephony platforms.
Domestic Boundaries, Bridges & Frontiers
In his text, ‘A Topology of Thresholds’ (2005), the French architect and academic Georges Teyssot also explores ‘threshold conjunctures’, particularly within the domestic realm, through a historical analysis of mirrors, windows, frames and other specular devices. Themes such as voyeurism and vanity appear once again as Teyssot interprets the early 20th century writings of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and the 19th century French poet and art-critic Charles Baudelaire. While Benjamin’s popular description of the 19th Century bourgeois apartment as a ‘velvet lined box’ for its inhabitants, such as that for a compass casing, places emphasis on the home as a means of protection it also simultaneously highlights that the interior, and its contents are on display. On this point, Benjamin goes as far as to describe a fictional section through the home as being a façade, “…no matter where you open it and cut a section through it, my house remains a facade” (Benjamin, 1982, p.4) While reflecting upon the effect of specular devices on the ‘modern’ home, and in particular window apertures and mirrors, Baudelaire arrives at an analogous conclusion to Benjamin, identifying a collapse in the threshold between interiority and exteriority, whereby the ‘modern’ domestic interior became a ‘private’ façade on ‘public’ display, while simultaneously the person on the street became a voyeur. Teyssot identifies specular devices, particularly mirrors and windows as being central to this collapse in the established threshold between the interior and the exterior. He writes, “Perhaps the modernist inhabitant is not so much to become exteriorized, or nomadic, as to find the home no longer neither simply an interior nor an exterior. ‘Living’ is somehow to now occupy the space between the two, inhabiting the threshold.” (Teyssot, 2005, p.106.) Teyssot’s interest in the ‘space between’ is indebted to the 20th century French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s reconceptualization of threshold ‘limits’ as frontiers that becomes voidal and interstitial, thus turning the boundary into a bridge, an ‘in-between’ or rather ‘a space between,’8 which provides the opportunity for exchanges, encounters and ultimately inhabitation. This understanding of boundary thresholds as bridges is strikingly similar to the observations drawn by Stone-Ferrier earlier.
Let us now return to the question posed at the start of this blog post, ‘What has living, and working through successive lockdowns taught us about the boundaries, or perhaps more precisely, the frontiers between the domestic interior and the world outside?’ The increased use of digital specular devices within the home has undoubtedly led to a greater porosity in the threshold between the domestic interior and the world outside, contesting and condensing traditional spatial limits between private and public domains. In these threshold conjunctures, temporal liminal places are created by these videotelephony interfaces that foster acts of voyeurism and vanity, perhaps represented most vividly by the Twitter accounts, ‘Room Rater’ and ‘Bookcase Credibility’. Through the writings of Stone-Ferrier and Teyssot, we have seen that this greater porosity in the boundary between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood is neither unprecedented, nor necessarily detrimental. In current times, analogue specular devices such as mirrors and windows have been supplemented, and in some cases replaced by digital screens and videotelephony interfaces, whereby we have become accustomed to seeing virtual mirror images of ourselves. Perhaps it is the 17th century Dutch ‘voorhuis’ that provides us with the best analogy for the domestic interior during the pandemic, performing as both a bridge between private and public domains through the facilitation of important social exchanges between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood, as well as a place of commerce.
Over the course of successive lockdowns, many have experienced established boundaries relating to privacy breached, whether it be through the unintended attendance of a talking kitten at a legal case hearing or an impromptu work meeting from the bed. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus has tragically affected so many people globally, perhaps its associated social restrictions can provide an important catalyst for rethinking established boundaries between the domestic interior and the world outside. In the days following his viral kitten filter incident, even Rod Ponton acknowledged the much-needed entertainment that the video clip had given many people struggling with the then ‘new normal’ of remote working. The architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has even identified the bed, once a ‘symbol of intimacy’, as having the potential to become the new multi-purpose place within the home, through a metamorphosis into ‘a piece of public furniture’ (Colomina, 2020, p.29) by accommodating remote working, teaching, shopping and even socializing. Perhaps the domestic interior has once again become an essential part of its surrounding neighbourhood and it is on this ‘frontier,’ or rather, within this ‘in-between realm’ that we must now establish home.
Beatriz Colomina is one of four keynote speakers, who will speak at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New perspectives on the home’ November 10-11 2022 at The Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. Read more about the conference and our call for papers here.
‘Frontiers’ here refers to Michel de Certeau’s interpretation of the frontier as an ‘in-between’ or a ‘space between’, whereby the simple act of delimiting a boundary allows for the potential of a passage, a crossing or a bridge to be established. See Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.
The French philosopher and prominent cultural critic of the post-war period, Jean Baudrillard has written extensively on the ‘intrusion’ into the home of specular devices and their effect on the ‘virtual’ relations between the ‘outside’ and the allegedly closed sphere of the domestic interior. It should be noted that this ‘intrusion’ has been taking place over many decades, although arguably advanced and expediated greatly by the Covid-19 pandemic. See Baudrillard, J. (1981) 2020. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press. & Baudrillard, J. (1968) 2020. The System of Objects. London: Verso.
See Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Baudelaire, C. (1947) 1970. “The Mirror”. In Baudelaire, C. Paris Spleen. Translated by Louise Varèse. New York: New Directions.
Baudrillard, J. (1981) 2020. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Abor: Michigan University Press.
Baudrillard, J. (1968) 2020. The System of Objects. London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. 1982. Das Passagen-Werk, Volume 1. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Benjamin, W. (1982) 1999. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (based on the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. “Chapter IX: Spatial Stories”. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1., 115-130. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Colomina. B. 2020. “The Bed in the Age of COVID-19: Uncovering a New Workplace”. In Fehlbaum. N. (Ed.), Vitra: New Dynamics in the Home: 28-29. E-Paper, Birsfelden, Vitra International AG.
Stone-Ferrier, L. (2020). “Glimpses, Glances, and Gossip: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings of Domestic Interiors on Their Neighbourhood’s Doorstep”. RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 45, no. 2: 25–46. Montreal: RACAR.
Teyssot, G. 2005. “A Topology of Thresholds”. Home Cultures, 2, no. 1: 89-116. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
The STAY HOME project will host the international conference STAY HOME: New perspectives on the home on the 10th-11th of November 2022 at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. We invite speakers to deliver research and design perspectives on the home as a physical, social, digital, and existential place in past, present, and future.
Call for Papers
What is home and how do we relate to, inhabit, shape, experience, and use it? Home is described in terms of shape, space, and scale, but also in terms of experiences, relationships, and emotions. During the corona crisis home became a central yet contested term. What does it mean to stay at home? What makes a home? What about those without a home? The pandemic might be a catalyst for thinking about home in new ways – not only as a safe or as a private space, but maybe also as an unsafe space or a space that is sometimes public or professional. We invite scholars to think with us about the home.
The aim of the conference is to share and discuss new perspectives on the home – in particular perspectives that emerge during crises and may inform future conceptualizations of human dwelling. We invite speakers to deliver research and design perspectives on the home as a physical, social, digital, and existential place in past, present, and future.
STAY HOME: New perspectives on the home is an interdisciplinary conference on the home hosted by the Danish research project STAY HOME: the home during the corona crisis – and after funded by the Carlsberg Foundation (2020-24). The project investigates practices, experiences, and uses of the home during the corona crisis and afterwards, and includes subprojects on existential experiences, domestic violence, the digitalized home, and the spatial organization of the home. STAY HOME is conducted by an interdisciplinary team from the faculties of Theology and Humanities at the University of Copenhagen, The Royal Danish Academy: School of Architecture, and the IT University of Copenhagen. Read more about the project in English or Danish.
Professor Joanne Begiato, School of History, Philosophy and Culture, Oxford Brookes University. Preliminary title: Making the [un]happy home: emotions, bodies, and spaces in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.
Howard Crosby Butler Professor of the History of Architecture Beatriz Colomina, Princeton University School of Architecture.
Chancellor’s Professor Paul Dourish, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine.
Associate Professor Hanna Reichel, Princeton Theological Seminary. Preliminary title: Home/alone? – Technologies of haunting and belonging.
Topics of interest
Possible topics include but are not limited to:
Feeling at home
Home and mobility
Dwelling and belonging
Home as an existential place
Home without a house
Sense of home
Boundaries and thresholds of the home
Smart or invasive home
Date and location
The conference takes place on the 10th -11th of November 2022 at The Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen.
Types of presentations
It is possible to apply with a proposal for a paper presentation, a presentation by a research group or a poster. The conference language is English.
Paper presentations are 15-minute presentations based on original research.
Research group presentations are 20-minute presentations by a group of researchers working together.
Poster-presentations are graphic one-page posters (A2) exhibited throughout the conference and presented in a session dedicated to Q/A and discussion of individual posters.
The application must include the following:
Title of the presentation
Indication of type of presentation (paper, group or poster)
Full name, affiliation, country of residence, and email address of corresponding presenter
Indication of all presenters’ disciplinary backgrounds and affiliations
CV of all presenters (pdf)
Research abstract (150-300 words) indicating: research objectives, methodology, findings, future scope, and 3-5 key words(pdf)
Please submit your application here no later than April 15 2022 at 12.00 pm CEST/UTC+2.
The proposals will go through peer-review and answers will be sent out appx. 6 weeks after the application deadline. The abstracts are evaluated on the basis of:
Relevance to the conference themes and topics
Disciplinary and geographical variation among presentations
We might want to publish selected papers with hitherto unpublished research after the conference.
There is no conference fee. The conference includes refreshments during breaks, and it is possible to buy lunch on-site.
We welcome geographical breadth. Non-European scholars may choose to present online if preferred. If you prefer to present online please state this in the application form.
A few travel bursaries up to 400 euros will be available as reimbursements after the conference. Depending on funding, we hope to be able to offer additional bursaries reimbursing travel expenses up to 940 euros.
The travel bursary application must include the following:
Motivation for attendance of the conference (max 150 words)
Budget showing travel expenses related to the conference
Indication of whether you will still be joining the conference or would like to present online if your travel expenses are not fully reimbursed
Please submit your travel bursary application together with your academic application.
Academic questions should be addressed to PI of STAY HOME, Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun: firstname.lastname@example.org
Practical questions or questions regarding the application process should be addressed to editor of STAY HOME, Emma Klakk: email@example.com