I first met the Belgian artist Elien Ronse at Studio Das Weiss Haus, Vienna, on our simultaneous residencies in 2015. This time in Austria was the beginning of her long-term body of research into domestic life, which has since taken her to Taiwan, Germany, Greece, South Korea, France, and now Northern Ireland. Sleeping over in a local person’s house for one night, Ronse stays with anyone from a friend to a stranger, finding willing hosts via word of mouth. She then documents the ways and objects of each person’s intimate life, systemising her records in her archiving processes. She describes herself as a micro-historian, observing the patterns of domesticity and the impact of collectivity on the shaping of personal space. This research forms the basis of her artworks, ranging from installation, film, interventions and games.
How did the domestic archive project begin for you, and how have you seen it change?
It began for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was always intrigued by physical objects, and would visit second-hand shops a lot. I started to take photos in these shops, which then led to me taking photos in my own home and in my friend’s houses. Then a break-up with my boyfriend at the time saw my circumstances suddenly change: with no house of my own, I would sleep in the house of a different friend every night. I quickly saw how differently you get to know someone by entering into their domestic, intimate life, as opposed to meeting them for a short while in a bar, for example.
I would make photos in my friends’ houses during this time, and found I wanted to extend this to sleeping in strangers’ houses. It was during the residency in Vienna that I first started sleeping over at the houses of people I didn’t know.
When I first started the project I was more interested in personal stories. Since then I’ve become more aware of the structures, house politics and histories that are visible. Now, I am more focused on the details of a home and the ways in which governments influence housing. The more I see repeated forms, the more I understand how different things are dictated by rules.
Like in council housing?
Not so much – more how government structures are visible in all houses – like in UK people tend to have separate taps, or cords on the bathroom light. These are decisions made by governments for safety and security. Some things are really typical in one or more different countries. For example, so many houses in Northern Ireland have carpet and there can be many different possible reasons behind it – is it for safety, warmth, noise reduction? These outcomes suggest rules or reasons, but their repetition suggests something at work outside of personal space.
When you’re involved in these acts of archiving, you’re moulding your life around another person’s routines and lives, but at the same time, carrying out the project needs a person to be open to letting you into their world. To what extent do you see the project as collaborative?
It’s something I’ve been wondering myself. Some people would say to me that I’m a performance artist, doing a performance every time I am inside a person’s house, and that it is collaborative. I feel I’m working very independently – I can’t work with other people to make my final work. And yet I sometimes think my work is always made by others – from people sharing ideas, or because I use the structure and organisation of their life.
I distinguish the archive I build and the artworks that come from it, and wouldn’t say these finished artworks are collaborative. But the archive, the whole important construction underneath these works can’t exist without other people.
Do you see these artworks as conclusive at all?
No, because it’s impossible to do so – despite what patterns emerge, there are always people who do not engage in them. For example, in Taiwan there are many people who wear plastic slippers around the house, but there are always some people who don’t.
I’m playing with trying to be objective when I’m writing, in making notes and making these artworks – just writing down what I see, like “He also has a vacuum cleaner called Henry”. But at the same time, you can almost always see subjectivity underneath it, because the things I observe say something about how my vision is bordered, just as everyone’s vision is due to their background. I try to remove these borders, but also know that this is impossible – so I wouldn’t say my works are conclusions.
On the other hand, it’s fun to make sort-of judgements about place. Banal ones, like about the slippers; I made a flag piece from this. It’s so inoffensive – you can’t draw conclusions about people but observe the habits that are formed collectively. In the end the stereotyping is a critique on stereotyping.
How does your work operate with or without the archive – would you see them as more playful when they are “released” into a gallery/public setting?
What I would call the final artworks are indeed very playful. I reform certain ‘scientific’ ways of working to magnify the impossibility of being objective. For example, I have created a drawn excel-sheet from 9mx2m on a wall, and I’ve made a video in which I attempt to fit objects back into the Ikea catalogue.
Up until now the public could only see the work I would derive from the archive, but I’m working on putting the documentation online so they’re available to everyone.
To draw on a question at your recent lecture, when you enter a person’s house, do you do so as a researcher or as a guest?
I feel like a researcher but act as a guest – I don’t ask people specific questions, or prepare how I behave, and I don’t have any expectations about what will happen, which works well because you can’t predict things. Sometimes people feed me, or they don’t, or they leave, or they take me out the whole night. But at the same time I’m a researcher, because I must be aware of the processes happening and the objects around me to make my work, otherwise I would simply be a couchsurfing traveller.
Do you have set things you record whilst you are there, like a diary?
I do a lot of things, not necessarily for the public to see yet, but for my research. There’s the bedroom checklist, in which I record the colour of the walls, the pattern from my blanket, some titles of the books they have and much more. I would make about 100 photos in every house, mostly of the same objects that are repeated across houses, for example toasters. I also take film footage from my bed as soon as I wake up, and do so in a strict sequence – taking in the ceiling, the walls, the floor, and then the duvet. They are all exactly two minutes, so these rules make the films easy to compare side-by-side.
It is an odd blend of objectivity and subjectivity, because in that action, any viewer seeing your film is seeing what you see, and becomes a guest by proxy. Each person who sees it makes the space a little bit less private.
People can see that it’s a private moment for myself as well, when I wake up in the morning and adjust to my surroundings. But I really want it to be about the room and the other rather than focus on my experience; but again, it’s impossible not to have this influence.
Has your relationship to objects been affected since doing this project?
Enormously. Ten years ago I was such a hoarder, and now I would not buy anything that’s not absolutely necessary. I am so aware of how many objects surround us, and I document them all, from the important to the very banal but prefer not to be surrounded by many myself. Now I live in white walls with only necessary things. I also avoid IKEA because I have seen so much of it and it is so pervasive. I do however have a certain respect for them, as they have achieved this Bauhaus ideal universal accessibility to a certain design. Also, without them I couldn’t make my work – I find particular objects all over the world, and in a way it’s lovely because it connects people.
There are a lot of trends to do with how we shape our space, or relate to our things, but I really believe in the principles of emptying your life and getting rid of what you don’t need. I noticed that people who tend to hold on to things often have stories about the past and have sad moments attached to objects – whereas when people are in an emptier space, I believe you can get past the sad things in life.
I once had a teacher who said “art isn’t creating new things, but organising things around you”. You work makes me think of this – your physical output is involved in organising other people’s things, and making mementos of it. You have the object, and your photo of the object – in a way it’s increasing its materiality.
And maybe more than once – I would have a photo, a text about it, perhaps a video. I would reproduce artworks and sometimes one object will be mirrored 4 or 5 times further – I am doubling things throughout the world, and expanding experience connected to the object.
Do you have any idea of where the project will go next?
I never know where I’ll go next. I love the last minute decisions because it means I start from a blank page – I leave without doing any research and discover a place bit by bit. I can’t choose and want to take the project everywhere – Russia, Turkey, Japan, North America, Canada, Brazil, Albania…in the coming years I will focus more on places outside of Europe. Let’s see where I end up next…