When you are a teenager, the aesthetic of your parents is as terrifying as their sex life. Most of us are spared seeing our parents have sex but their embarrassing taste is everywhere we look. Thinking about the suburban homes of the 1980s with their wall-to-wall carpet, decorated toaster covers and impressionist reproductions still makes me feel claustrophobic. For others it’s sea-grass matting and Che Guevara prints they can’t abide. Either way the childhood home is furnished with the values of our parents. Delicate flowers from the faux Laura Ashley wallpaper crawled all over me while I sulked in my room. My parents’ taste imposed itself upon my body, ruining my black clothes, itchier than any mohair jumper.
So as an angsty teenager, I was pretty pleased when I saw the 1986 film Dogs in Space. The chaos and eclectic characters filled me with the hope that I might one day escape incarceration by my parents and watch Countdown with other misfits. The characters and scenarios are now familiar. There’s the Lothario listening to Brian Eno and the student who can’t get any work done because everyone else is partying. There are arguments about politics and who’s been cooking meat in the frying pan. The only vaguely appealing character ends up dead, which fortunately was not something I encountered in the share households I was to inhabit during my twenties and early thirties.The documentary We’re living on dog food (2009) uses Dogs in Space to discuss the period in which the film was set—1978—and the making of the film. The documentary explores a place in time through its people, music and drugs. Members of the band Primitive Calculators, who feature in the film, speak of ‘the Little Band scene’ that grew out of two share households in North Fitzroy. Primitive Calculators and Whirlywirld lived next door to each other but instead of popping over for a cup of sugar like other neighbours, they were forming deliberately impermanent bands together. Equipment and knowledge were shared. Many players were not musicians and there was a blur between audience and performer. While the bands performed in public, it was among friends and often just once. Consistent with the ethos of share households, a sense of community, experimentation and fun was valued above longevity or creating masterpieces.
For many people, the first time they move out of home they move into a share household. They come from all sorts of families and bring varying experiences of household life. Families normalise their values and habits, and in our late teens and early twenties many of us had limited experience of other ways of living. Many of the people I have lived with had hippy parents, which in my teens I would have envied greatly. But they did not think they’d had ideal childhoods. In share households our values and histories met and had to be negotiated. This was a source of fascination and an opportunity to be retrained. We experimented with different ways of living.
The first and most common experiment was to see how long we could go without washing the dishes. In my late teens and early twenties cleaning up seemed like a terribly uptight bourgeois pretence. Living in squalor seemed a revolutionary strategy. In some households experimentation extended to hosing the dishes in the back yard or limiting each house member to one plate, one bowl, one cup and one set of cutlery. This latter option solved the problem in an efficient way but efficiency was not a priority in the share households where I lived. Entertaining guests was. So our experiments inevitably ended with washing the dishes.
Filthy share households are often attributed to men, but for many young women rebelling against domesticity is also an important step in moving out of home. I grew up in a house where we were expected to clean up after our father, the only male. In share households I didn’t have to clean up after anyone. Many people grow up in a home with a mother who rules the domestic realm with an iron fist. This often means men in particular feel they have no role in the domestic duties, but in share households this is challenged. It is where many of us learn to cook and discover that far from being the daily drudge it was for many of our mothers, it can be a source of enormous enjoyment.
With the rise of ‘grunge’ in the 1990s, sparsely furnished, messy homes that evoked the stereotypical share household became the setting for fashion photography. Photographers such as Juergen Teller and Corinne Day achieved a level of success that meant their work was in high-end magazines, including British Vogue. Day’s work was frequently shot in her share household or the homes of models such as Kate Moss. This was revealing in all sorts of ways. Clearly no-one had vacuumed for some time and there were dirty dishes here and there. These images caused considerable controversy and even Bill Clinton condemned them. Largely it was the skinny models and the perception of heroin use that caused the alarm, but it was also the fact that these homes looked shockingly sparse and grimy compared to the other aspirational images in Vogue. The most depraved thing in these images was the overflowing ashtrays, which look a lot more wicked these days. In the 1990s smoking outside was for people who owned precious carpets. But despite the alarm, these homes were not squats and there were no infestations or genuinely unhygienic conditions. In reality they simply represented the way that many young people chose to live when they first moved out of home.
For me the decor of share households was a rich source of inspiration. From 1996 to 1998 I made a photographic series called House Style in which I documented the living space of shared households. The house that I lived in then was sparse like the ones in Corinne Day’s images but the ones I documented had a surreal aspect, loaded as they were with the belongings of many people. Good taste and the practicality of clean surfaces were sacrificed to humour and conversation pieces. I was interested in transience. I liked the fact that the houses were haphazard and, now I think about it, tentative. They weren’t good examples of design but they bore the signs of their creation. Like the members of the household, the decor spoke of where it came from and what it left behind. Eighties lounges had been carted from the family ‘rumpus room’. Quite possibly the corner seat and the other end of the couch were still there. Fifties kitchen tables had come from gran’s place before she’d gone into a nursing home. Odd kitchen chairs had been dragged from hard rubbish and street signs had been brought home drunkenly. In those early households the taste police were an authority resisted as eagerly as any.
In 1996 I made a photographic installation called Banal le nouveau chic, which was shown at the Victorian College of the Arts, among other places. One of the pictures included a bill with the address in Mozart Street, St Kilda. A baby-boomer visitor informed me that he had lived in this house and that he had lived there with the now legendary photographer Carol Jerrems. Although it was uncool at the time to like Jerrems’ work, I was a fan. In Prahran College library I had secretly peaked through the pages of A Book about Australian Women with curiosity and delight, hoping my lecturers would not see my enthusiasm for this irony-free world of overalls, pregnancy and feminist protest.Jerrems’ work had documented the youth of the 1970s and some of her photographs were taken in share households. One of her images is called Mozart Street and was taken the same day as the famous Vale Street. In Mozart Street the same three protagonists, fully clothed this time, stand in front of a rundown shed. Share households are often referred to by their street name as much as by the occupants, who are transient while the house is solid. That household that I lived in is still always referred to as ‘Mozart Street’. So Jerrems’ title Mozart Street could have referred to a household or to the people in the photo, though they were not housemates. Jerrems has become notorious for the ambiguity of the relationships she represented.
I never found any evidence in her images that it was the same house as the one I lived in. Our house had a rundown shed too but it was not the same one that features in Jerrems’ photo. I think the person who told me it was the same house probably made a mistake and they had lived next door. Living next door to the house that Jerrems lived in was not quite the same but it gave me a sense of both artistic and household lineage.
In 2002 Dudespace, a gallery that picked up on the sense of community around share households, was created. Exhibitions were held in the spare bedroom of a share house in Brunswick. The shows were usually on for just a day and were a social event. The experience was like visiting a friend or turning up at a party. You wandered down the central hall and on your left was the gallery, a carpeted room with a domestic light fitting and yellowish curtains. People used the space in any number of ways or alternatively focused their efforts on the extensive back yard, where a barbecue was held for each show. The casual domestic environment encouraged open discussion and a social ease that is often missing from galleries. Seeing exhibitions in a share house was a refreshing change to the career-oriented outside world.
On visiting the house for an exhibition, I loved the arrangement so much that I asked to show there too. This was similar to how, visiting a friend or a party at a share house, you might mention that you liked the house, and when a room became available you’d be considered a candidate for it. The gallery wound up after more than three years for classic share household reasons. One of the housemates started storing their stuff in the spare room and doing the dishes after the show was a drag.
The Hotham Street Ladies were also a product of the environment of share housing. Four of us lived together in a crumbling Californian bungalow in Collingwood in 2004, where we delighted in cooking and holding dinner parties. Among our inevitable second-hand bits and pieces were recipe books put together for primary school fundraisers. Inspired by these, Cassandra Chilton, Molly O’Shaughnessy and I dreamed up The Hotham Street Ladies Contribution Cookery Book. We asked our friends to contribute a recipe each and included images from meals we had at our house. I learnt to cook in share households and the book extended this exchange of knowledge that was the nature of sharing a kitchen. By 2007 Sarah Parkes and Caroline Price had also lived in the house and so they helped us with our next book, Tastes from the Shared Kitchen. Ever since, the five of us have been doing food-related projects including street art, installations, decorated cakes and a public art project for the City of Yarra.
In 2009 I was asked to speak about feminism and the Hotham Street Ladies for a panel discussion. In preparing for it some of the ‘Ladies’ realised that share households wouldn’t exist without feminism. Prior to the 1960s most people lived with their parents until they got married. The pressure to get married must have been great, particularly for those in unhappy and poor families. Our generation could shake off those unhappy families before we considered beginning new ones. Young women who left home prior to the sexual revolution, usually from the country, tended to join wards of nurses or go to teachers college.Boarding was also a common option for young people moving to the city. This was not like sharing though. You lived in someone else’s home and it may have been a bit like replacing your parents with a new set, although one more likely to leave you feeling lonely and isolated. When people lived together in rented homes, it was in single-sex arrangements. The British sitcom Man about the House, made in the early 1970s, illustrates the scandal of cohabitation among the sexes. At first the two women and the man feel they have to lie to their landlords, even preferring to say the ‘man about the house’ is gay. Oh the antics, the cross-dressing, the girls who can’t cook. The fun never ends.
Although we now live apart, the share household is an ongoing reference in the work of the Hotham Street Ladies. In 2009 we submitted our first cake to the Royal Melbourne Show. It represented a scene familiar to share householders. A pile of pizza boxes replete with pizza crusts and discarded pineapple, the television remote control, full ashtray and bottle tops. The cake was not well received by the judges at the Royal Melbourne Show. Comments included ‘Cigarettes and ashtray very off putting when viewed’. Considering everything was made of cake and icing, they could have eaten the cigarette butts, but that would have been even more ‘off putting’.
The following year our Miss Havisham cake was disqualified from the Royal Melbourne Show with this explanation: ‘Be aware that the exhibit is in bad taste. You are presenting something that is food-based and should be pleasing to the eye.’ The character Miss Havisham from Great Expectations was left at the altar and spent the rest of her life sitting at her wedding table. The wedding cake was dusty, eaten away by vermin, classical columns collapsed like ruins from a lost civilisation. The institution of marriage—old, degraded and ruined. The tiny bride is still propped on the cake while the groom has crashed down among the dust and mouse poo, his head broken off.
But the Hotham Street Ladies can have it both ways. One of the Ladies got married and we made her wedding cake—a leopardess a metre and a half long with a diamante tooth and false eyelashes. We are free to critique marriage or to get married and celebrate it in glamour. Similarly, we choose to make our domestic projects and to hone our skills in the same spirit of fun and community as in our share household. Our worth is not judged on the cleanliness of our homes or whether our cakes are ‘pleasing to the eye’. We can delight in embroidered aprons without being subservient.
The sexual revolution paved the way for share households but they were not about the idealism of the 1960s. If you had suggested to me ten years ago that share households had any relationship to communes, I would have been very resistant. Communes failed. If you could remember them you weren’t there. All that hippy stuff spoke to me of hypocrisy. I had a pretty good idea that while the men were enjoying free love and a creative lifestyle, the women were cooking their dinner, caring for their kids and quite possibly paying their bills. I read Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Manson gang, Helter Skelter, and threw down Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip in disgust. Communes were weird, murderous sex cults, and 1970s share households were characterised by naive women who fell in love with junkies and never seemed to go to work.
Share households are very different to communes, and I think the lack of idealism becomes an advantage. You don’t have to spend a lifetime with these people, you don’t own part of a property, you haven’t fathered their children and the future of humanity has got nothing to do with any of you. Families and couples share mutual household goals such as saving money and improving and renovating their homes, goals that don’t allow for the sort of playful activities that flourish in share households.
There is fluidity in all aspects of the share household. With cheap rents in the 1990s, people moved in and out, taking with them their record collection, their furniture and their personal lives. There was an opportunity for power structures and gender roles to be negotiated. Sharing a home with numerous others also narrows the divide between public and private, which led to projects such as Dudespace and the ‘Little Band scene’, where the roles of audience and artist were blurred. I can now see that despite the desolate back yards with discarded furniture and burnt out forty-gallon drums, share households were more utopian than dystopian.
© Lyndal Walker