Sound Semiotics of the Kitchen

Here‘s a link to the Storify with all the sounds.

This project is a sound- and social-media-based reperformance of Martha Rosler’s 1975 video “The Semiotics of the Kitchen.” Rosler’s work is one of the foundational texts in what was then the brand new genre of video art. It was also an early-ish participant in the tide of feminist art that would sweep the artworld in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the video, Rosler dissects the gestural semiotics of common kitchen and culinary tools, one for each letter of the alphabet (except u-z). Her gestures are exaggerated and often violent (e.g., the stabbing with the fork or the ice pick); this suggests the patriarchal “violence” that relegates women to kitchens, to “second shift” domestic work, and so on. 
There are sounds in the video, but, because it’s a video, its focus is on the gestures and motions Rosler’s body makes while using the kitchen implements. I wanted to focus on the soundsthemselves. And not the sounds of kitchen labor, but the sounds that kitchen implements can make when used in non-standard, non-utility-driven ways. In 2012 we generally recognize that the kitchen is the studio in which culinary artsare made (Modernist Cuisine, sugar art/sculpture, cake art, etc.). But what about the sound art potential of everyday kitchen gadgets, furnishings, and pantry items? I basically used the kitchen as one big concret gamelan, so to speak. Can the home kitchen be something other than a site of sheer drudgery and “second-shift” labor?
I guess because I come from a more third-wave feminist perspective, I don’t see the kitchen or domestic labor that’s traditionally gendered feminine as inherently or necessarilyoppressive. Patriarchy makes it that way; even so, women have always found ways to exercise agency, to make something interesting out of their drudgery. (I disagree here with Beauvoir—and with Elaine Miller’s reading of SdB on this—I dothink repetitive, domestic labor can, when twerked/reworked/remixed, be the site of transcendence rather than just immanence.) I wanted to consider the implements as something more than just tools or labor-saving devices. I wanted to play around with their purely sonic properties—so, I generated sounds by doing things with them that weren’t generally part of their intended functioning. So, for example, I blew through the teensy holes in the zester; I often played things like percussion instruments (the Pyrex dishes, the measuring implements, the dish rack, the knife). I did not generally use the objects as intended: I treated them as sound-producing objects, manipulating them to maximize sound output.
Because Rosler focused on objects, I focused mainly on objects. I am considering doing a second alphabetic series dedicated mainly to the sounds of actions (specific cooking techniques, etc.).
The 27thtweet in the series is really important: if you watch Rosler’s video, you see that at the very end she shrugs her shoulders. It’s like she breaks character for a minute, inserting some humor and levity into an otherwise very serious, even dour, performance (or, a performance she knows will be interpreted as dour, because of sexist expectations that women are always uber-cheerful). So, I ended with a sting/rimshot/ba-dum ching.
I stuck as closely as I could to Rosler’s original list of implements. I changed a few (E, H) because I didn’t already own the devices she used; I added letters u-z. I followed her format of using the tool, then saying its name. It
My departures from Rosler’s list, as well as the differences between, say, my measuring implements and her measuring implements, reflect the vast changes in American kitchens, diets, and culinary culture (foodie culture) in the 35-ish years since Rosler’s video was filmed. For example, it was really easy for me to find something for the letter W: most middle-class white people have woks in their kitchen, and they’re sold at Wal-Mart and Target. Similarly, my fancy measuring cups from Crate & Barrel clearly function as both design objects and utilitarian ones (that’s why one buys something like this from C&B, rather than just some perfectly functional ones from Wal-Mart or the kitchen supply store). This reflects the aestheticization of food into foodie culture.
Dish Rack
Egg Beater
Hamburger Press
Heating Element (on an electric stove)
Ice Cube Tray
Measuring Implements
Measuring Implements
Pizza Cutter
Quart Bottle
Quiche Dish
Rolling Pin
Rolling Pin
Slotted Spoon
Utensils (in a drawer)
PyreX Dishes
1.    Audioboo—It was easy, intuitive, and free.
a.     I recorded one or two sounds every day (or so) for about three weeks. I published each individual “letter” as I recorded it, so the initial publication of the project unfolded over a few weeks.
2.    Twitter—This initially grew out of SoundingOut’s #tweetasound project. (Here‘s their round-up.) I used twitter because, well, when I started tweeting kitchen sounds—initially, the sound of the first three speeds on my mixer, or the crust of a loaf of bread I just baked—I didn’t have this specific project in mind. But, I think there are good reasons for using twitter (see #4 below).
3.    Storify—collects and organizes items across social media platforms. This was an easy way for me to collect each individual tweet and publish them together with this blog post. Basically, Storify is like my editing suite.
4.    Why these social media tools? 
a.     Well, I wanted the technology to be as easy, intuitive, and widely available to the average user as, say, a fork and a knife, or a set of measuring cups are. Women are socialized to “just know” how to use basic kitchen tools; they’re not usually socialized to “just know” how to use more than the most basic consumer-grade audio technology. I wanted to use technology that was already in the kitchen—smartphones, social media, etc.
b.    This also goes back to Rosler’s original: video is a consumer technology that is used in people’s domestic environment. This is why we have, for example, Bill Wegman’s dog videos, or Sadie Benning’s early video work. It’s not an expert technology. It’s something people use to record, document, and facilitate their daily routines.
c.     Of course what social media does is complicate public/private distinctions: I’m broadcasting from my kitchen in my pajamas (seriously! I made most of these recordings right after breakfast, before I even showered.) Jasbir Puar talks about the ways neoliberalism reworks public/private distinctions (using a reading of Lawrence v Texas). Similarly, neoliberalism has found ways to extract surplus value from care and service work, from social relations, from all those things that used to be women’s work, domestic/private, etc. By using social media like twitter, Instagram, Audioboo, etc., I do the same thing, turn what was once private and domestic into something that’s neither “public” nor “private” in the traditional sense.
                                               i.     Relatedly: if the private/domestic was gendered feminine under classical liberalism, how is femininity different under neoliberalism? There’s both femininity as a logic or structure, and femininity as qualities, properties, etc. I suspect they both change. But how? 
Next Steps
1.    I may re-record some “letters” to get better sonic results. Maybe.
2.    I am strongly considering doing the “verb” or activity version (this would be the “object” version).
3.    I need to consider if—and if so, how—I want to “show” this work in a more official artworld-y way.