A modern, fully-equipped, automated kitchen is a sight to admire. The smell of freshly baked cookies wafts into the living room, evoking warm feelings of comfort, luxury and convenience. The cookies were made using an electric beater, either a hand mixer or even a KitchenAid, and the television-esque automatic oven. The kitchen is compared to a science laboratory and kitchen equipment has become something to show off. Household appliances are distributed as wedding and Christmas gifts, firmly planting the kitchen as a commodified technological platform that looks like it’s ready to take off.
In the 19th century upper class Western world, following the mechanisation of industrial production, there came about the machine replacement of manual domestic labourers through the advertised and packaged forms of the fridge, the microwave, the toaster. Designs of this machinery originated in an industrial context, and the appliances arrived home with specific operative manuals written from a technicist, male perspective rather than a position that considers the social relations of use. This improved standards of hygiene followed by the subsequent Taylorisation of the kitchen, reducing the personal and skill-based activity of cooking to the efficiency rating of appliances and minimization of human (female) error. The machine(s) not only obliterated skills and tasks in the user, but the user’s relation to the machine was consigned to a passive one.
In her essay, “Design and Gender: Where is the Heart of the Home,” Philippa Goodall states that the history of women’s work shifts between realms of production and reproduction, the former as formal paid (underpaid) work, and as unpaid labour at home. The kitchen was, and continues to be a gendered space, occupied by the women of the house. Anglo-American postcolonial analysis pictures the kitchen as the arena for the domestication of the colonized or exploited female ‘other’. Kitchen terminology and tools signify female subjection by a patriarchal, colonial market, causing the woman to occupy the dual position of a consumer-labourer.
In Marta Rosler’s 1975 video, “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” she appears as a kitchen host, listing the A-Z of a kitchen, performing an action following each tool. Her enactments are often violent and repetitive, but her face deadpan through which she exposes issues of consumer culture, mechanized labor and material handling as a monotone assembly line. Rosler states that through the video she wanted to ‘challenge the familiar system of everyday kitchen meanings — the securely understood signs of domestic industry and food production’.
Reimagining Rosler’s video in the current decade replaces the manual egg beater with a hand mixer, the chopper would equate to a food processor, and the juicer to an electronic one. The appliances today still maintain the industrial and productive functionalities but with aesthetic value coming with higher prices. Rosler names each tool as a cooking show personality would, but now, most of the appliances have their own distinctive sound that occupies kitchen space. The semiotics that existed in the technical male-authored instruction manuals and Rosler’s violent depiction, now are audible through the ding of the microwave and the pulsating food processor. The food is ready, says the efficient microwave, and stay at a safe distance from me, says the powerful food processor.
“Our machines are disturbingly lively and us frighteningly inert.”
What agency do we have over our electronic appliances?
I was working on a project to try and break down the semiotics of sound; the social cues that told us to get off the bus or take the food out of the microwave. I aimed to do this through live foley, where the sound of a blender made by my coursemate seemed to work well for a car-chasing chainsaw-wielding Leatherface slashing the weapon into the air. The juxtaposition of the blender and the chainsaw equated the sound of the domesticated female with that of the hypermasculine weapon.
I recreated Semiotics of the Kitchen while enacting popular scenes from the Terminator, as that’s the science fiction film I vividly remember watching with my dad, and it fitted the technological realm of semiotics surging through electronic appliances plugged in our kitchen sockets. This subverts the repetitive actions of household chores into those of a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill a woman, to prevent her son from being instrumental in defeating the machines in the post-apocalyptic future. Through Rosler, and by further developing the Semiotics of the Kitchen, the kitchen that is perceived as a domesticated site, a haven of routine and patience, clean and orderly, producing appropriate meals at set times of the day, is now converted into a space of rebellion of protest through the lens of the camera.
Words, Arushi Matiyani.
Images, still from Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Still from Arushi Matiyani’s recreation of Semiotics of the Kitchen.