Laundry Lives - Blended Practice

To make Laundry Lives we brought together techniques from visual/sensory ethnography, design ethnography and documentary making. This is a form of blended practice, also developed in Sarah’s other projects, whereby the techniques used do not exactly belong to any one of the different disciplines they draw from because they are always somehow enhanced, or compromised because they have incorporated facets of the other disciplines they touch on. Blending between ethnographic and design practice is a specific focus of the Design+Ethnography+Futures research lab, at RMIT.

Laundry Lives - Visual/Sensory Ethnography

To undertake our research, we needed to develop a way of knowing about the lives of our participants that went beyond the kinds of superficial knowledge that tends to be produced by interviewing and observational studies.

We needed to get beneath the surface, to understand the activities that people perform everyday, but do not necessarily ever speak about, and to encounter the knowledge that is part of these activities.

Similar visual and sensory ethnography techniques have been developed throughout Sarah Pink’s work over the last 15 or so years. These have been specially designed to enable researchers to encounter people in their homes, to follow their everyday mundane activities and routines and to uncover their embodied, sensory and non-verbalised ways of knowing about the things, processes, atmospheres and feelings of everyday life that are invisible but actually fundamental to understanding where meaning lies for them.

A thorough guide to the use of these video-based research techniques, along with video clips and links to other resources is included in Sarah’s Energy and Digital Living website.

The arguments and ideas behind these approaches and techniques are discussed in detail in the two books Doing Visual Ethnography (Pink 2013) and Doing Sensory Ethnography (Pink 2015), as well as in a number of her articles available online here.

Video is central to these methods, because when the researcher or filmmaker video records, it both enables research or documentary participants to use their whole bodies as well as verbal explanations where needed to show, demonstrate and explain what they usually do or what they think they usually do.

In the Laundry Lives film we asked the participants to show her how they did their laundry, but used this performance and its narrative as a way to also ask them a series of questions about why they did their laundry in this way, what their experiences had been both directly of this activity, and of the issues surrounding the activity. That is by exploring laundry with the participants on video, we were able to situate laundry in their lives, not simply as an activity they had to do as separate from everything else, but as something that had implications for and was shaped by a whole series of personal, cultural, infrastructural, technological, material, sensory, practical and social contingencies (and of course also, in the complex world we inhabit, by more things than these).

In this process we learned about, for example: the changing gender relations whereby some men were taking on more domestic tasks, rather than the family having a maid, how participants experienced the different types of water supplies they used, and about how cultural beliefs about washing machines and damage impacted on the ways people used their machines.

Laundry Lives - Design Ethnography

Because we were interested in Design, we also focused the research towards understanding the challenges that participants faced in being able to live in an environmentally sustainable way.

For example although Lia and her husband (in particular) talk about the importance of environmental sustainability, Lia is very honest with us about the challenges she faces in achieving this regarding her laundry.

As we see in the film, there were a series of shared or common issues that participants faced, such as those relating to water supplies, or difficulty in finding environmentally friendly products.

We were also interested in the things and systems that participants might have designed themselves. For example Adi’s glass ceiling and use of the stick to dry his laundry indoors, …

… and the way that Ning and her maid had developed a system of only using the spin cycle on the washing machine in order to avoid damaging clothes by washing them in the machine.

We were also interested in the relationship between ethnography and design with reference with their tendencies to address different temporalities. By this we mean that ethnography, traditionally as it has been practiced by anthropologists is a past-facing approach. Ethnographers report on things that have already happened, since they research things that are already slipping behind them into the past as soon as they have happened.

Anthropologists, also write about their findings as things that have happened in the past for ethical reasons. This ensures that they acknowledge the specificity of everything that has happened, instead of suggesting that it might be an objective definition of something that always happens in the same way. However design has a different temporality since it is oriented towards making change happen in to the future.

If we want to make change happen, then we need engage with the possibilities of what might come next. In the Laundry Lives documentary we therefore also ensured that our focus also accounted for possible futures, where towards the end of the film the participants speak about how they imagine technologies in future homes, but also what their real ambitions are for the future.

The contrast between these two final sections was particularly important, since it effectively shows that what participants really wanted for the future was a better life for their children. Therefore when designing for or with people like them, while their visions of technological futures would be relevant, it would also be very important to account for what really matters to them, which appeared to be the latter.

Laundry Lives - Documentary Making

Documentary making is the third element of our blended practice. The documentary techniques we used in this project had a number of influences.

First they were based on Sarah’s training in ethnographic documentary making, which had developed into a video ethnography technique for exploring people’s everyday lives in their homes through video tour and reenactment methods (discussed here: Energy and Digital Living). This technique involves staying close to participants, following them in their everyday lives, and seeking to gain a sense of the ways they experience their worlds.

Secondly, as a filmmaker Nadia is interested in the way stories are told through film. While filming and interviewing the Laundry Lives participants she would also be thinking about capturing establishing shots, related B-roll and cutaways that could help in telling a visual documentary story.

For example, a close-up of a washing machine or the activity being performed. Filming from different angles. Filming related objects or people and pets that were in the room but that weren’t captured in the main scene. She would also capture footage of things that a participant might refer to outside of the main action, such as the booming local laundry businesses that Nur mentioned when asked about her neighbours.

Before beginning the editing process we held a script mapping workshop in order to develop the storyline. We mapped each participant by their personal data and the themes that had emerged from the research and structured a storyline based on the flow of laundry activity from start to finish. The middle section of the film – while we’re waiting for the washing machine to finish its job – we used as an opportunity to flesh out the stories of our particpant’s everyday lives, work and family.

Of the original 8 participants that we filmed for Laundry Lives, we ultimately decided to focus on just the 5 with the strongest stories.