Recovering Lost Narratives in Epic Kitchens

xtine burrough is a hybrid artist. She uses remix as a strategy for engaging networked audiences in critical participation at the intersection of media art and digital poetry. Sabrina Starnaman is an Associate Professor of Instruction of Literature and Director of Research for LabSynthE, a laboratory for synthetic, electronic poetry at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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Introduction

Created for online viewers during the COVID-19 lockdown, Epic Hand Washing in the Time of Lost Narratives, is an iteration of the installation A Kitchen of One’s Own, a project commissioned for The Photographers’ Gallery Media Wall as part of the Data / Set / Match programme.[1]In March 2020, we were ready to ship our project, A Kitchen of One’s Own to The Photographers’ Gallery in London for display on the 2.7 by 3 meter Media Wall. As one of three commissions for the gallery’s series 'Data / Set / Match', a year-long programme seeking new ways to present, visualise and interrogate contemporary image datasets, A Kitchen of One’s Own confronts a large, open-source video dataset of people in their kitchens. This 2018 dataset generated by the Epic Kitchens research group became the visual base upon which we juxtaposed narratives centring on women in the kitchen. Both projects juxtapose the Epic Kitchens’ dataset with a textual dataset of our own creation to reveal the arbitrary nature of information preservation and highlight the constructed nature of digitised materials. Blurring the lines between art and archive, or information and dataset, these projects further argue on the digital dataset as an authority of knowledge curation. These projects act as an entry point to reflect upon the meaning, and cost, of being in the kitchen, in social isolation (Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives), and as a woman (A Kitchen of One’s Own). This text is an overview of both projects weaving a thread between the technical and the conceptual: the projects are linked historically by the writing and arguments put forth by Virginia Woolf, technologically by computational juxtapositions of text and image, as well as poetically in the viewer’s experience through a speculative remix.

These speculative remix projects are an intervention in Epic Kitchens, the largest set of first-person vision filmed with head-mounted cameras (Figure 1).[2]The 2018 set was created in 32 participant kitchens across four cities, and culminated in 55 hours of footage shot at 60 frames per second, that is, more than 11 million frames of footage. Videos in the dataset are annotated using live audio commentary and tagged by Epic Kitchens researchers with 125 verb classes and 331 noun classes. The computer scientists working on this project are training machine learning, to “advance the first-person vision, enabling improvements in robotics, healthcare and augmented reality”. Researchers assign to each video verbs like “wash,” “peel,” “put,” or “rub” in order to describe and categorise events. The Epic Kitchen research team made available a set of 268 videos to train machine learning with segments tagged with pairs of nouns and verbs. For our projects, we re-exported and reused the training videos in the Epic Kitchens’ 2018 set; we, therefore, present a parallel set of literary texts in poetic dialogue with the original verbs or noun/verb pairings that appear at keyframes in these everyday kitchen recordings.

From A Kitchen of One’s Own to Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives

In 1929 Virginia Woolf gave voice to many women’s experiences of living in patriarchy with the book ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This essay was the conceptual beginning for our first project A Kitchen of One’s Own, which subsequently asks: What does it mean to be a woman in a kitchen or for a woman to have power over the food she makes? When the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the installation of A Kitchen of One’s Own, it got us thinking about literature that had been written about being in quarantine, being sick, as well as living amid a pandemic. In 1926, Woolf wrote the lesser-known, extended essay, ‘On Being Ill’ about the 1918 influenza pandemic. In this essay Woolf probes how the English language is incapable of expressing the lived reality of severe illness. The intensity of the high fever, delirium, and aches is not something we can accurately convey using the expressive means at our disposal. According to Woolf, such a situation needs a new language and one that relies heavily on figurative language and images. The COVID-19 pandemic is a novel experience for us, but not a novel experience in the course of human history; we have the insight of the past to draw from in order to give voice to our own experience and to lend a narrative that may explain what we are enduring.

Our project Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives, therefore, juxtaposes the mundane experience of living in quarantine with expressions that sought to capture the reality of human experience—a reality that writers like Woolf and Camus thought could only be expressed with poetic or figurative language (Figure 2).

Moreover, when we experience a once-in-a-lifetime global event, humanity loses its established meaning-making narratives. As we look backwards on events, emotions, and the loss of the familiar, we need to construct new stories while assembling a new existence. How do historical narratives and the mundane work of surviving day to day in isolation play out in our lived experience? (Figure 3). What appears as an everyday activity in the original Epic Kitchens videos, in our work becomes charged with intimate human narratives, which have been created by writers across time to understand life within pandemics. (Figure 4).

Texts written during pandemics, or reflecting back on life during that time, offered valuable insights into our contemporary experience as this was unfolding. Since we had been working with the Epic Kitchens dataset just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were intimately familiar with the first-person kitchen videos. As our quarantine began, we were especially mindful of our own experiences in the kitchen. This was a moment for us in which life did more than imitate our art—our lives were like a performance of the art we were making. As we were peeling, cutting, washing, and so on, we, too, were making sense of life during a pandemic.

Thus, we turned to novels, plays, poetry, and essays written during or about life during pandemics from the bubonic plague to the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Our selection of texts includes authors such as William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Katherine Anne Porter, William Maxwell, and Giovanni Boccaccio, who experienced outbreaks of yersinia pestis (bubonic plague) and the H1N1 influenza outbreak of 1918-19. These texts address the horror of being sick, the fear of becoming infected, the grief of loss, as well as the mundane life of quarantine. While reading or rereading these works, we looked for quotes that (1) spoke to the experiences we were having or witnessing around the globe, and (2) were short enough to be viewed in juxtaposition with video in an average web browser.

The quotes were then juxtaposed with the selected videos from Epic Kitchens to create new narratives not just about kitchens but also about our contemporary experience of domestic spaces. Tagged with the noun "hand" and the verb “wash”, our poetic browser-based project Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives centres 68 unique video clips redacted from the much longer videos in the Epic Kitchens dataset. Each new clip is thirty seconds and a randomly-selected quote from the set of literary texts is juxtaposed over the clips as they are displayed online, creating a series of unique pairings for the viewer. This provocative overlay invites the reader to create their own story about what is happening in the displayed kitchen and to reflect on happenings in their own kitchen during the pandemic. If a viewer holds their cursor over the text, they will see the title of the book, play, or essay to which it is attributed. Clicking on the text leads to a new video and quote juxtaposition advancing the narrative and creating new correlations.[3]This project is published in a Creative Commons license (Zero v1.0 Universal) on Github and the videos were first streaming from the Vimeo collection, Epic Hand Washing— a sub dataset of videos from Epic Kitchens that have been transformed in size and duration, and re-exported and compressed for streaming online. The site was remade to stream from The Photographers’ Gallery server as Vimeo’s streaming was notably slower in the UK than in the US. The navigation at the bottom of the project links to these collections and to a spreadsheet that shows the complete bibliography for the project. A form in which viewers can suggest additional quotes is also linked from the bottom navigation tool. This methodology of associating images with text and creating new narratives is central in our work and a framework that we also used in the creation of the original project for the Media Wall.

A Kitchen of One’s Own

The kitchen is a complex space for women: it can be a realm of creativity and nurturing, a place of domestic oppression (Figure 5), a sphere of professional success, or a work environment rife with sexual harassment. In A Kitchen of One’s Own we curated textual selections in English-language that explore this multitude of experiences across cultures and foodways,[4]Originating from social science, 'foodways' describes not just the production and consumption of food, but also the intersections of food with culture and history. while also being in conversation with the everyday scenes of making food in domestic kitchens from around the world. From women writers to women artists, the kitchen is a space that holds possibility for reinterpretation.

Many women move between the spaces of the domestic kitchen and the professional one, but their presence is regarded differently in different spaces. In a 2016 interview for Another Gaze Journal, Martha Rossler said, “Women are always teetering on the brink in the liminal space between the public and the private, and societies have very strict rules about women and their appearance in public. Whereas it is taken for granted that women...own the domestic sphere...”. In our work, we call attention to those tensions between private and public spaces, and to the implicit and explicit rules that women must abide in order to succeed in those spaces. The images of kitchens from Epic Kitchens’ dataset are private spaces. For us, the power in this work is in the juxtaposition of texts that bring those images of the private realm into the public domain as conversations about women’s domestic and commercial kitchen experiences.

Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, explores women’s creative production, the need for equal access to education, and how having a room for oneself and their own money can allow women the time and autonomy to create. For many women across time, the kitchen has been her space, and while it may have been a shared space, it was the place for her to express her creativity (Figure 6), albeit often coinciding with the unpaid labour of caring for herself and her family. In recent decades women have also had more access to culinary training and work in professional kitchens, but for many, this has come with the steep cost of feeling pressured to conform to the culture of the old boys’ club mentality or being subjected to terrible acts of sexual harassment or assault (Figure 7). We chose to honour Woolf’s feminist canonical text with our project, and in doing so, we also took on the laboursome task of 'prepping' the videos; a work that seems invisible in the final result yet akin to preparing food in domestic spaces.

A Kitchen of One’s Own, like its spin-off Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives, is a remix of two sets of data, however the scope of the original project is much larger.

After burrough, a professor of emerging media art, gathered 268 videos from the Epic Kitchens dataset—a task that took three weeks of continuous downloading—she created a prototype of how she imagined the final project to appear on the Media Wall. With a set of videos edited to 30-second clips, she brought a series of grid designs to technical director and Associate Dean of Creative Technologies Dale MacDonald in search of an easier way to generate the videos in the square format and thirty-second duration she would need for display. MacDonald wrote a script in Python to extract keyframe data[5]A keyframe is a single frame associated with specific timecode during time-based media, such as animation or video, where an action takes place. In the simplest form, one might assign three keyframes to the movement “jump”—the first keyframe when the jumper is on the ground, the second at the top of the jump (midair), and the last on the ground again. In the Epic Kitchens dataset, the keyframe data is a specific timecode that has been used to tag the video with language. Over time, the tagged verbs or nouns repeat on certain types of images. This human labour aids the programming of machine learning. from the original videos. By plotting timecode in each video where nouns and verbs had been tagged, he then exported thirty-second video clips using an application called FFMpeg.

Collectively, we spent more time processing video for this project than any other task, as some of the original videos in Epic’s dataset were up to 1 hour in length. In A Kitchen of One’s Own the 55 hours of footage from the ‘Epic’ dataset resulted in a transformation of those original 268 videos into 6,560 unique thirty-second clips, where the keyframe that holds the verb/noun tag data appears at the end of the video file. MacDonald created the javascript code that randomly arranges videos into one of burrough’s grid formations and sets the quote across the whole of the Media Wall.

As seen in figures 5, 6, and 7, the typography is set in selected typefaces for literature, journalism, and social media. The verbs originally assigned by the Epic Kitchens researchers and the selected literary quotes we present in this project create an invitation for the viewer to reimagine those kitchen performances as narratives written by or about women across time and culture. A final text box appears at the top of the wall to display the verb that was assigned to the videos on the monitors, and that the collaborators also applied to quotes in the textual dataset (Figure 8).

The textual dataset of A Kitchen of One’s Own includes more than 140 quotes from the three categories: literature, social media, and journalism. Starnaman, a literature professor, with Alyssa Yates, a research assistant, sourced these quotes working together, with their human (not machine) vision to identify selections that captured women’s experience in a concise way. This was a job that required poetic discernment and semantic insight to identify textual selections that would resonate with human experience and offer creative spaces for viewers to create imaginative links. Starnaman and Yates also searched Twitter and British and American news sources for articles about sexual assault and harassment in all manner of professional kitchens. Many of these texts were written from first-person points of view or featured extensive interviews with survivors of assault. Not surprisingly, reading about #MeToo in professional kitchens often left them feeling, more than ever, the need for a kitchen of one’s own.

Quarantined In Our Kitchens

At this moment of writing, we are still quarantined in our homes. Our Governor has declared that Dallas is in 'Phase 1' of re-opening, but neither of us believes it is safe to live like we did before the pandemic began. So we continue to stay at home and move primarily between the bedroom, living room, outside space, and kitchen—with the greatest day time spent in the kitchen preparing meals, cleaning, and working at the kitchen table. Our excitement about completing A Kitchen of One’s Own was tempered by our sustained foray into the readings of women’s experiences in commercial kitchens. However, developing Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives has given us a way to imagine this as a time that is not lost, but full of narrative possibility. Moreover, with this project we enter into the larger global conversation emerging around how to make sense of this generation-defining time; a conversation that will continue for a long time.

View burrough's and Starnaman's Epic Hand Washing in the Time of Lost Narratives.
(For an optimal experience, we recommend using a desktop browser to view the project)

References

[1]

In March 2020, we were ready to ship our project, A Kitchen of One’s Own to The Photographers’ Gallery in London for display on the 2.7 by 3 meter Media Wall. As one of three commissions for the gallery’s series 'Data / Set / Match', a year-long programme seeking new ways to present, visualise and interrogate contemporary image datasets, A Kitchen of One’s Own confronts a large, open-source video dataset of people in their kitchens. This 2018 dataset generated by the Epic Kitchens research group became the visual base upon which we juxtaposed narratives centring on women in the kitchen.

[2]

The 2018 set was created in 32 participant kitchens across four cities, and culminated in 55 hours of footage shot at 60 frames per second, that is, more than 11 million frames of footage. Videos in the dataset are annotated using live audio commentary and tagged by Epic Kitchens researchers with 125 verb classes and 331 noun classes.

[3]

This project is published in a Creative Commons license (Zero v1.0 Universal) on Github and the videos were first streaming from the Vimeo collection, Epic Hand Washing— a sub dataset of videos from Epic Kitchens that have been transformed in size and duration, and re-exported and compressed for streaming online. The site was remade to stream from The Photographers’ Gallery server as Vimeo’s streaming was notably slower in the UK than in the US. The navigation at the bottom of the project links to these collections and to a spreadsheet that shows the complete bibliography for the project. A form in which viewers can suggest additional quotes is also linked from the bottom navigation tool.

[4]

Originating from social science, 'foodways' describes not just the production and consumption of food, but also the intersections of food with culture and history.

[5]

A keyframe is a single frame associated with specific timecode during time-based media, such as animation or video, where an action takes place. In the simplest form, one might assign three keyframes to the movement “jump”—the first keyframe when the jumper is on the ground, the second at the top of the jump (midair), and the last on the ground again. In the Epic Kitchens dataset, the keyframe data is a specific timecode that has been used to tag the video with language. Over time, the tagged verbs or nouns repeat on certain types of images. This human labour aids the programming of machine learning.