Domestic Cleaning Performance is a tribute to cleaners

Photo: Isabel Leon ja Ana Matey

At the end of October I worked with Spanish artists Isabel León and Ana Matey to create a work of art called Domestic Cleaning Performance. The performance has been included in their performance art project called Exchange Live Art and in my research project, which is part of the multidisciplinary research project called Voice and Silence of Class, or VoxClass for short.

We came up with the idea for the performance in September during our residencies at the Saari Residence in Mynämäki after Isabel discussed her previous projects. These projects have highlighted the never-ending women’s work, and in particular cleaning and caring for others. In one project she re-made a bed every time it had been slept in by someone. “This work is directly related to my life,” Isabel says, because she had worked as a cleaner before

In my own research project I investigate the way in which the concept of class is highlighted in the hiring of domestic services. We know that such services are hired by highly-paid, well-educated, middle-class women. The domestic services sector employs women who are not highly educated and who usually have an immigrant background. The domestic services sector is currently one of the growing sectors in Finland and the other Nordic countries. Households are increasingly hiring help for cleaning, childcare and elderly care in addition to the more traditional renovations and repairs.

On many occasions, Isabel, Ana and I discussed the problems associated with the hiring of domestic cleaning services. We talked about our experiences. “Your research project was the first actual reason to create this performance,” says Ana. And it’s true, I was the one who suggested the cooperation.

The artists asked me what expectations I, as sociologist, had regarding this work of art. I told them that I wanted to experience how it feels to cross a certain moral boundary by purchasing the type of service sector work that I am quite capable of doing myself. I also wanted to share the feelings aroused by domestic cleaning as a job and this performance with the party that carried out the cleaning.

Experimentation

Isabel explained that last year, instead of being able to do her artistic work, she had to work as a cleaner in few occasions. As Spain was in the grips of the financial crisis she was unable to find work in her own field and she, like many others, was finding it difficult to get by. So the nicely-paid art workshops were replaced by occasional domestic cleaning jobs at other people’s homes.

“I found this very hard as my financial situation is in a bad way. I wasn’t ashamed to do the work though, as there is nothing wrong with cleaning. It is a job like any other. But I want to work without having to feel like I am doing something that is unimportant or low-ranking. In this case, doing cleaning work exposed me to the hard realities that affect my life and the lives of many others. It also crushed my belief that I was an elite artist and the myth of being an artist and making a living by making art alone,” says Isabel.

My own background is not that different, though it is 20 years since I last did any cleaning work. While I was studying, my paid work included cleaning at factories and other institutions, and one summer I was a home help with the City of Turku. I regarded these jobs the same way as Isabel: a job is a job and I was happy to take any work as I needed money to live.

Therefore I was very aware that the problem was not the actual cleaning work. So as part of our performance I hired domestic cleaning services for the first time in my life.

I felt very uncomfortable about paying for and getting someone else do my domestic work. There were probably many reasons for this. First of all this feeling was associated with being a woman and ‘a proper woman’s work’. We Nordic women have, after all, been brought up to take care of our paid employment, our homes and children and ourselves, not to get someone else to do all this for us. Above all, we would not be able to afford it either.

The uncomfortable feeling was therefore related to my daily life as a working woman, and this is true for career women and working class mums. Working motherhood has also made this an obligation by default. Behind this is a rise in the educational level of women and the increase in salaried work, which many years ago made it possible for municipalities to provide child daycare. At the same time domestic workers started to work outside households.

Back in those days, decades ago, the national economy required women to work outside of the home and also made this possible. It is now possible to see the employment market dividing into two: There are people with permanent and temporary employment relationships, there are wage earners and other employees, and in addition to full-time work there are also work gigs, hired work, temporary agency work and so on. Multi-skilled employee who carries out tasks that require special expertise will become a key employee, while other employees may come and go. On the labour market women, young people and people with foreign backgrounds typically have less advantageous conditions of employment.

Another reason is, in fact, related to the class issue. Even though I know that cleaning work is decent, hard work, paying someone to do this work was quite a hurdle for me to overcome. Simply put: paying for someone else to do my cleaning somehow felt really embarrassing. Therefore getting others to do my domestic work – poorly paid women – felt awkward.

I, and I am sure this is the case for most people, have always considered cleaning my home to be a tedious obligation and have taken care of it whenever I could be bothered or have felt like it. Of course, this train of thought reveals that I am not really enthusiastic about cleaning. And on top of this, my work as an academic researcher pretty much dominates my time use in my one-person household. Naturally, it is also true that I am obviously a potential customer for the domestic cleaning sector.

In general, in contrast to these contexts, my feeling of shame is comparable to the moral justification of middle-class families to hire domestic services and to get someone else rather than a member of the family to do the domestic chores. The feeling reminded me of a description in Susanna Alakoski’s book The Pigsties in which a working class mother with a Finnish background makes extra money scrubbing the bathroom tiles of Swedish gentility with a toothbrush.

 

Contract

We drew up a cleaning contract for our Domestic Cleaning Performance and a video recording of this became part of the performance. The contract covered a total of eight hours of daytime cleaning work to carry out the final cleaning of a flat that I had moved out of. We also agreed on the payment. The hourly rate that is stated in the Finnish collective labour agreement of cleaning branch (EUR 10-12 per hour, depending on experience) was offered in the contract. Compensation was also provided for the bus travel between Mynämäki and Turku and the cleaning materials and equipment. These matters are agreed separately when a household is the direct purchaser.

“We realised that in Finland, cleaners are paid about the same as they are in Spain, i.e. about EUR 10 per hour. The point here is that in Finland food costs about two or three times as much as it does in Spain. In Finland, cleaners’ wages are really very low. In Spain that hourly rate is nothing special but it is not that bad either. You can live on that kind of wage over there,” says Isabel.

In Finland, domestic cleaning work is still usually offered on the basis of part-time, or short-term contracts, so you can’t really live on that wage. This alarmed the artists and it alarmed me. I told them that there is a high level of personnel turnover in this field, and this is most likely to be the case because of the low income and physical nature of the work. I also told them that in Finland domestic cleaners are usually Estonian or Russian women.

Ana and Isabel explained that in Spain, people get to know their domestic cleaners as the same cleaners clean the same homes year after year. In this way the work has continuity. We discovered that in both countries, homes are cleaned by working class women and that domestic cleaning work is common in Spain.

In practice of our performance the cleaning work was exchanged for food. The artists used all the money earned to buy food from a supermarket. This was a fundamental part of the performance. Exchanging the work for money and the money for food makes the exchange visual in the performance. It also reveals the necessity for income and the disproportionate ratio of the exchange. I am investigating these themes more deeply in my research project.

In reality of course, neither party was forced to do any of this. I did not need to pay for someone else to do my domestic cleaning because of my status and workload. And as artists, Isabel and Ana did not have to accept this domestic cleaning job.

“We are not domestic workers or housemaids and we did not really need the money. And the cleaning work was nothing unusual,” says Ana.

“The performance itself was nice as we did it together. We managed to record really successful and funny takes,” they both say.

Exchange

So what is it that makes our project bold? In their Exchange Live Art project, Ana and Isabel are, with the help of performance art, investigating communication and the interpretation of messages by exchanging creative processes, results and different elements.

“We usually work with other artists, but this time we created a completely new exchange experience by working with a sociologist. It added completely new dimensions to our project. It provides food for thought. It also requires boldness to work, cooperate and exchange something into something else with someone else whom you don’t know,” says Isabel.

The artists also wanted to know how I, a sociologist, experienced our cooperation.

In the VoxClass project I am working with seven other researchers from different fields of humanities and social research. I have always thought that the ‘exchange’ of new types of experiences and understandings is very rewarding. I also gained a better understanding of the relationship between hiring and doing such work that I understand as a class relationship, and the underlying issues here. I was also encouraged to overcome, and to understand, a certain theoretical block that class society can clearly be seen and heard in a different way in my project.

All three of us are of the same opinion that we are dealing with important matters. The themes are also very relevant because, as part of the exchange, we spoke about the different class societies in Finland and Spain, the employment situation in the different countries and the differences in the labour markets, and we also spoke about the values given to different professions and the gendered division of labour.

“We gained a real experience of what it was like to clean Anu-Hanna’s apartment and we have produced photographs, videos and texts based on this,” says Isabel.

We will use parts of the research work and the artistic work to share the experience side of this. The video that portrays the performance deals with the different aspects of the exchange, whatever Isabel and Ana decide to create from my contribution. I will end up contributing more than my hands and maybe also my voice to the video of the performance, as part of the video will be made up of, at least, Finnish job adverts for domestic work sector that I will analyse for my research project. We will continue our cooperation this winter.

“The name of this work of art created from this ‘exchange’, which will be launched in the near future could easily be Don’t be ashamed. As it has, in fact, been very interesting to discuss the fact that Anu-Hanna experienced feelings of shame related to hiring house cleaners. And I, on the other hand, felt a little uncomfortable whenever she asked whether I felt the same. I feel that every type of work deserves respect,” says Isabel.

When I think about the experience of paying for someone else to do my cleaning work, I completely agree about the respectability of cleaning as paid work. I also understand that our differing basic assumptions related to hiring and doing cleaning work are pretty much associated with our backgrounds, in other words, our social and cultural differences. Background and upbringing also have various influences on our attitudes.

We all believe that the creation of this performance has been enlightening and rewarding in many ways. The Domestic Cleaning Performance work is, above all, a tribute to domestic cleaners and women in low paid jobs.

Author

Anu-Hanna Anttila

Adj. Prof., Voice and Silence of Class project
(Kone Foundation 2012–2014)