The Servant Problem

Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher
Performative intervention at Eldon House, London
Part of “Trespassers & Captives,” curated by Jamelie Hassan
London, July 1–4, 1999

  We staged The Servant Problem in 1999 at Eldon House, a residence built by the Harris family in 1834 in London, Ontario, and donated, contents and all, to the city in 1960 as a museum. Sponsored by Museums London, our project was one of several residencies hosted by Jamelie Hassan under the title “Trespassers and Captives.” Our series of performative tableaux addressed the situation of servanthood as a social phenomenon and focused on the lives of servants in a house that is, for the most part, a monument to private ownership.

150 years before the phrase “the servant problem“ gained prominence as the social bane in bourgeois circles, Jonathan Swift remarked upon the difficulties in hiring individuals to tend to one's person and home. His satire of training manuals, “Directions to Servants,“ savagely reverses expectations by informing domestic staff on the best means to frustrate their masters' and mistresses' wills. Advising butlers on how to extort tips, cooks to blame missing food on feral cats, grooms to divert oats to their secret distilleries, or housemaids to carry their Lady's chamberpot about for all to experience, “Directions to Servants“ is a shrewd list of ways to distress one’s employer. As much as it tries to portray the moneyed class as victims, however, its rules of misconduct could be argued to be, for servants in constrained positions, limited expressions of self-empowerment, cunning strategies for resistance.

At the time of the show, the New York Times suggested that the refrain of “You can't get good help nowadays“ persists despite the boom market, low pay scales and the readily available workforce of recent immigrants. Insults and disrespect are not issuing from servants, however, but from nouveau riche employers who believed that once on the payroll, domestic staff are human drudges, willing to be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, loyal despite enduring all manners of abuse. As several historians have remarked, “the servant problem“ is one that could be more accurately named “the master problem.“

For our intervention into Eldon House, we sought to re-inhabit and haunt the space with the histories of servants, as a counterpoint to the lives of the masters. The figures of maid and security guard reference the dual identity of Eldon House as both a home and a museum. Whereas the security guard alludes to the current public domain of Eldon House, the maid stands in for its history as a private familial enclave. The anachronistic cohabitation of maid and guard signals a destabilization in the identity of Eldon House – as the competing aspects of residence and institution never quite cohere. The two characters, though, are not totally sympathetic. At times transgressive, at other times overly submissive, the persona of the maid oscillates. The security guard exhibits his own ambivalence, shifting between incompetence and unreasonable intimidation.

Performing in an historical museum such as Eldon House raises questions about the relationship between bodies and objects, temporary interventions and fixed narratives. The Servant Problem utilizes the museum as a stage, transforming the edifice of certain meanings and established history into one of contestation. For a brief time, the museum shifts from a univocal, homogeneous container of the past to being a mutable nexus of issues. Invading the exhibits and inhabiting the rooms closed off to anyone except authorized personnel, we sought to deterritorialize the conventional and unidirectional viewing of objects and confront visitors with other perspectives. If servants were judged on their unobtrusive and deferential demeanour, to the degree they avoided being “a problem,“ our performances deliberately foregrounded obtrusive and resistant behaviour as a way of entering into, and exploring, the problematics of servitude.

While The Servant Problem focused on the institution of servanthood, it was also our intention to deliberately fuse curatorial and artistic practice. On one hand, the tableaux we performed were a studied intervention. On the other, the tableaux shifted the modality in which the museum and its collections were experienced. The incorporation of living people in the museum's displays promoted a distinct kind of encounter: rather than submerging the beholder in the past, viewers were brought into a conflictual and polyvocal present.

For a fuller text, see Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, “The Servant Problem,” in Trespassers & Captives, Jamelie Hassan, ed., London: London Regional Art and Historical Museums, 2000, pp. 49-61.

A video monitor shows the guard bound by rope in the attic. His shouts for help resonate throughout the house. While surveillance cameras are designed to capture trespassers, here it is the guard who is on view. The policing of museum behaviour is overwhelmed, and its vulnerability to criminal activity demonstrated.

Pink Bedroom  
The maid mirrors a 19th-century engraving of a woman considering a marriage proposal. She holds two fortune-telling cards – love and calamity. For a maid, falling in love, getting pregnant or expressing personal desires, could lead to punishment, fines or dismissal.

In the Library the guard conducts an investigation through the sense of smell. He sniffs bookshelves, artifacts, chairs and rugs. Whether checking up on the maid’s cleaning or locating the source of that distinctive “museum smell,” his canine, almost perverse, activity recalls the bodies, odours and mortality of the original residents.

Upstairs Bathroom  
The maid conducts a tactile exploration of the bathroom. Massaging faucets and tilting into the tub, her trancelike choreography verges on obsessive behaviour. Ambiguity arises about boundaries, as the body of the cleaner becomes over-identified with that which is cleaned.

Dining Room  
In the Dining Room, legs protrude from the table. Does this immodesty evidence a tryst or foul play? In the next room, a monitor shows the maid neglecting her duties, evading supervision by her mistress. She poaches from the library and reads forbidden literature – romance novels and palm-reading manuals.

Blue Bedroom  
The security guard and three Eldon House mannequins assume a classical tableau vivant: “The Judgment of Paris.” Impersonating the social position of his employer, he relieves the pent-up frustration of preserving luxury but always being denied its pleasures.

Drawing Room  
The security guard is enshrined in a vitrine, while the maid goes about her dusting. The guard is but another magnificent possession in a tastefully designed interior. The collecting obsessions of Victorian families here reaches an ultimate conclusion: the servant captive like a specimen under a bell jar. Drawing Room

Maid's Bedroom  
The maid and security guard appear together in this time-warped pairing. Here the civic and quotidian identities of the museum are personified and collide in an ambiguous scene with multiple connotations -- an illicit encounter? the scene of a murder or a death? the dream of a romance or some other kind of vision?

Our intervention into the Maid's Bedroom also included an audio installation. DisplayCult collaborated with Lynda Doyle, a fifth-generation London clairvoyant, who did a psychic reading of the room. This was another way of evoking the unrecorded lives of some of those who worked at Eldon House. The thirty-minute tape played continuously during the weekend of tableaux vivants.

Front Entrance/Kitchen Exit  
At the front door, the security guard intimidates visitors with humiliating inquiries. He revives a gatekeeping hierarchy into the public building, reminding visitors that as a privately owned house, entrance may have been prohibited for those outside of the approved social elite.

The maid greets people as they exit. She courteously brushes off and collects any “Eldon House dust” that may have accumulated during their visit. Obsessing over the implementation of “museum standards,” she makes sure that not even a particle of the institution leaves the premises.
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