Epic Hand Washing

Synchronous Participation and Lost Narratives




How to Cite

burrough, xtine, & Starnaman, S. (2021). Epic Hand Washing: Synchronous Participation and Lost Narratives. M/C Journal, 24(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2773
Vol. 24 No. 3 (2021): zoom
Published 2021-06-21

In March 2020, co-authors burrough and Starnaman with Technical Director Dale MacDonald had just finished collaborating on a work of computational art, A Kitchen of One’s Own, for The Photographers’ Gallery in London. In this essay we discuss the genealogy of our Zoom performance, Epic Handwashing for Synchronous Participation, which was an extension of two earlier projects—one that was derailed due to COVID-19, and the other that resulted from our pivot towards reflecting on the pandemic experience. Our performance was a response to, and offered a collaborative moment of reflection on, the uncertain moment in time of living in a global pandemic and understanding our experience through participatory art.  

A Kitchen of One’s Own was commissioned for “Data/Set/Match”—a year-long program dedicated to analysing, interpreting, and visualising image datasets (burrough, Starnaman, and MacDonald). The image dataset we interpreted is Epic Kitchens’ 2018 collection. Epic Kitchens is a dataset of videos collected by a group of researchers whose participants create non-scripted recordings of daily activities in kitchens. It is the largest known dataset produced using first-person vision. Researchers assign each recorded action with a verb like “wash”, “peel”, “toast”, or “rub” to describe and categorise the event. Our project juxtaposed the videos from Epic Kitchens with quotes from a dataset created by Starnaman with research assistant Alyssa Yates. This work was scheduled for installation on the approximately nine by nine-foot media wall, viewable to the public inside the gallery and to passersby on the street in London’s SoHo neighborhood. However, the work was not sent until May because of the COVID-19 lockdowns in London and Dallas. Thus, feeling trapped and frustrated in our respective homes, totally separated by quarantine, but close in distance, we responded to our historical moment with art.

Figure 1: xtine burrough and Sabrina Starnaman with technical direction by Dale MacDonald, A Kitchen of One’s Own, single frame on the media wall seen from Ramilles Street. The Photographers’ Gallery, London, October 2020.

A Kitchen of One’s Own explored personal and domestic kitchen spaces as mundane, politically-charged, and inspirational (fig. 1). The familiar, comforting space of the home kitchen became charged with domestic tropes of the pandemic: hand washing, sanitising, and cooking. We explained,

A Kitchen of One’s Own is a speculative remix that confronts Epic Kitchens, a dataset of first-person cooking videos, with quotes from articles and social media posts on sexual harassment in professional and domestic kitchens, podcasts about the kitchen as a political space, and reflective texts by women authors about food and cooking. (burrough, Starnaman, and MacDonald, “Kitchen”)

Taking inspiration from our Kitchen project, we pivoted for audiences online with a browser-based project, Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives. This project (fig. 2) showcases 68 videos found in Epic Kitchens’ 2018 dataset that had been tagged by researchers with the keywords “wash” or “hand”, which burrough and MacDonald optimised for the web browser and republished in a showcase on Vimeo (burrough, Starnaman, and MacDonald, “Epic”). Starnaman and burrough developed a new dataset of complementary quotes for this iteration including selections from literature written during or about pandemics such as the bubonic plague and the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

Figure 2: Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives. Browser-based project for The Photographers’ Gallery and Unthinking Photography. March 2020 (https://unthinking.photography/projects/epichandwashing/).

We developed Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation (fig. 3) as a Zoom performance of our browser-based project for a virtual engagement session at the Electronic Literature Organization’s (ELO) conference in the summer of 2020 (burrough and Starnaman, “Epic”). In this article, we illustrate these projects as a series of interrelated investigations, and centre on the Zoom performance, Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation. We then reflect on the way these works engage a range of public audiences and participants.

Figure 3: xtine burrough and Sabrina Starnaman, Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation. Virtual engagement session and participatory performance hosted on Zoom for the ELO conference. This still frame shows a final group performance of hand washing at 21:56 (the complete session was 27:32). July 2020.

Blurring Boundaries: Audiences, Participants, Maintenance, and Labour

Our past projects demonstrate our commitment to participatory creative practices in which the boundary between audience members, performers, and participants is blurred in the generation of the work of art. Our earliest collaboration, The Laboring Self, was an installation of cardboard cut to the shape of virtual workers’ hands. We collected tracings of hands from workers on Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk work platform and laser-cut them from recycled Amazon boxes. In the gallery we invited participants to inscribe or embroider the hands with statements about work before adding them to The Laboring Self installation. Audience members shared their stories, sentiments, anxieties, and hopes about the labour they perform in their everyday lives on hands that crowded a wall space during the span of the exhibition (fig. 4). This work was inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles's 1970s feminist performances in maintenance art, which elevated care-taking and everyday “maintenance” activities to the platform of fine art. In Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, Ukeles confronts the boundary between her everyday performance as a mother, woman, and artist. In particular, with regard to maintenance, Ukeles proposes to “simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art” (qtd. in Burnham). So too, we exhibited the hands of hidden workers to bring visibility to the invisible and asked audience members to become participants by putting on view their own reflections on the various forms of labour they embody.

Figure 4: xtine burrough and Sabrina Starnaman, The Laboring Self, installation view approximately 8 by 10 feet. The Dallas Museum of Art Center for Creative Connections. October 2017-January 2018.

For our more recent Zoom-based performance, Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation, we again focus on the hands of our audience members-turned participatory performers. As Ukeles used her hands to wash the steps of an urban museum, turning often invisible labour visible through performance, we sought to make the private act of hand washing—an act of personal protection and civic duty—a public performance in the digital town square. The individual hand, which has been central to our work in the past, synecdochally represents the worker, or in this case the person-turned-public-health-citizen. In a world of ubiquitous Zoom calls, the focus is almost always on our faces, our bodies cut off around the shoulders or mid-torso. Hands are but a fleeting on-screen guest. Yet, for this performance, our hands were at the centre of the screen, standing in for our physical effort and existential fear.

Directions for Participants

Before our performance, we shared this set of directions with participants:

Prepare to wash your hands on Zoom in real time by setting up a camera to live stream or recruit a person to film you near your sink.

Log into the Zoom link provided. Wash your hands on camera for 20 seconds while we read along with your performance.

Notes from the Live Event

On 18 July 2020, about 24 people participated in our event as solo participants, as couples, and as families on one Zoom call. The invitation to this project included the instruction to be camera-ready for hand washing at any household sink, so our participatory public entered the call from their kitchens and bathrooms. Before our formal introduction, a couple of tech-savvy kids drew on the Zoom screen (fig. 5), initiating a spirit of playfulness that the adults on the call stepped right into. While we had anticipated this event would elicit a sense of communal action, we were not prepared for just how community- and play-starved we all were.

Figure 5: Opening Title Slide, Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation. ELO Virtual Engagement Session. 18 July 2020.

We set the stage for the performance by introducing Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives, our spring 2020 browser-based project, and gave participants a moment to click through it and to read the texts we had culled for our database of “pandemic quotes” (burrough and Starnaman, “Epic Hand Washing Text Dataset”). Then we explained that our facilitator and Zoom host, John Murray, would be calling on the participants one at a time to wash their hands, while we took turns reading quotes from our archive.

The first participant quietly washed their hands, and the pairing of our first quote created a serious tone: “so, at the bidding of the queen, they washed their hands, and all took their places…” (Boccaccio 26). However, the rhythm of the call and response, and the joy of witnessing each other in our various households across the globe, lightened the experience. We, along with participants, reveled in the intimate hygienic dance of hand washing at kitchen sinks and bathroom vanities; one after another we shifted our presence to another person’s living quarters and joined them at the sink. This was a truly mixed, global group. Scholars and artists for whom ELO is a disciplinary home rubbed virtual shoulders with our friends and their own friends who would not have attended ELO otherwise. This event replicated the same kind of shared experience across time and space that the archive of pandemic and hand washing texts elicited. These texts bring humanity together through the calamity of plague and disease, allowing for a sense of larger community, and that is exactly what we saw on the screen: human experience mediated by the screen in conversation with writers across time and connected by the word.

Moreover, this event took place in July 2020, a time of “early pandemic”, a time when the complete unknown of the epidemic had given way to the acceptance of quarantining, but before the exhaustion and cynicism of The Long Confinement and Zoom fatigue had fully set in. Thus, we saw an enthusiasm to connect and play with the medium in a way that might have been impossible eight months later.

Synchronous Participation as a Performance

While the complete performance is archived on the ELO website, we have excerpted a clip from the performance for analysis (burrough and Starnaman, “Excerpt”). It is a 2:15 clip from the middle of the performance, during which we took turns reading quotes from our database while participants washed their hands on camera, one at a time.

We showcase this selection of the performance to highlight the repetition embedded in the script. Our directions for participants and our moderator, John Murray, became repetitive mantras throughout the performance, while the reading of the quotes gave participants space to wash their hands. We read four quotes for each participant, which we measured to leave approximately thirty seconds of time for hand washing. We wanted participants to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, following the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines, and we predicted that there would be moments when we would begin reading but participants would not yet be washing their hands. Since their performances were out of our control, we decided to read for slightly more than twenty seconds for each participant.

From 0 to 22 seconds, Sabrina and our moderator, John Murray, enact the transitional directions between participants. At the start of the clip, Sabrina thanks the participants who have just finished washing their hands—our friends’ twin children, Cora and Henry, who fill the screen in Zoom’s Spotlight mode until eight seconds. The twins are at a double-vanity, washing their hands in coordinated outfits, and moving towards separate towels at the left and right sides of the screen at six seconds.

At eight seconds Sabrina is spotlighted. She directs our moderator with the same “set-up phrase” that we repeat throughout the performance: “please mute everyone but us and the next selected hand washer, and don’t forget to change the spotlight to them. When you’re ready, announce who will begin washing their hands.”

From 12 to 22 seconds participants are visible in Gallery View while John announces that Tina Escaga will wash their hands next (fig. 6). From 0:22 to 1:07 Tina appears in Spotlight mode. The screen is filled with Tina in the bathroom washing their hands with a white bar of soap. The next set of four quotes are read by xtine, as we watch Tina perform hand washing:

  1. "Can we not contrive that he somehow wash himself a little, that he stink not so shrewdly?” (Boccaccio 149).
  2. “We are now close to a well, which is never without the pulley and a large bucket; ’tis but a step thither, and we will wash him out of hand” (Boccaccio 149).
  3. “Among the drawbacks of illness as matter for literature there is the poverty of the language” (Woolf 33).
  4. “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache” (Woolf 34).

Figure 6: Tina washes their hands at the sink with a white bar of soap.

From 1:01 to 1:29 xtine thanks Tina, repeats the set-up phrase to John, and John announces that Renee Carmichael is the next performer. The spotlight shifts from Tina to xtine to Gallery View to Renee.

From 1:29 to 2:00 Renee appears at their kitchen sink and washes their hands in Spotlight mode as Sabrina can be heard reading the following four quotes:

  1. “We’ve not seen anything of the sort before...” (Camus 6).
  2. “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits” (Camus 1).
  3. “It becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature” (Woolf 32).
  4. “They determined to attach him to the rope, and lower him into the well, there to wash himself...” (Boccaccio 149).

From 2:00 to 2:15 Sabrina thanks Renee, repeats the set-up phrase, and John announces “OK, next up, Leo”. From 2:00 to 2:07 we see Sabrina in Spotlight mode, at 2:07 to 2:15 participants are visible in Gallery View, and though this clip ends at 2:15, in the full-length documentation of the performance, Leo is next seen in the Spotlight.

In this short clip, it is evident that the repetition of the performance directions sets the stage for our audience / guests / performers, who voluntarily came to this ELO virtual engagement without prior rehearsal. Cora and Henry, Tina, and Renee are prepared with the camera near their sinks and wash their hands for the complete duration of our reading. Tina and Renee (and all of our adult participants) are seen in the video wearing headphones or earbuds for their performance. Our directions did not advise this, but we were encouraged to see that the participants thought ahead about their technical engagement. We also did not advise participants to turn off the water while they were scrubbing their hands. If we were to restage the event, we would include this for water sustainability purposes. It should not be so surprising to us, but we are still amazed at how thoroughly all of our participants washed their hands. Clearly, our performers had watched the directions provided by the CDC for washing viral matter from our bodies.


Our original project A Kitchen of One’s Own had viewers peering into the recorded kitchen scenes of anonymous participants in person at The Photographers’ Gallery or through the gallery window on Ramillies Street in SoHo, London. Viewers watched the private actions of strangers in their kitchens while being presented with various texts. Some offered descriptions of sexual harassment in often famous professional kitchens and others, the meditations of women about the significance of creation in their home kitchen. This developed an exploration of the significance of women’s experience in place. While fewer people were able to visit the gallery installation, A Kitchen of One’s Own, in London due to the pandemic, many people viewed Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narrative online. Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation put the audience in the domestic space while sharing the historic, traumatic experience of a pandemic, dislocated across time. It invited an entirely online audience to experience a live performance of hand washing at the sinks of strangers and friends, fully mediated through screens on both sides. Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation did exactly what we named it to do—engage people in a live, synchronous elevation of a mundane human action in a personal, yet ubiquitous space to a work of art, while experiencing the asynchronous voices of people who had already lived through global pandemics. This iteration offered us the embodied experience we had originally envisioned for A Kitchen of One’s Own.

As a result of the pandemic, people in technologically connected communities are intimately familiar with the online interactive public that was once the realm of digitally savvy producers and users. This reality thus broadens the audience for our online projects. Our previous browser-based art and archive project An Archive of Unnamed Women was largely visited at workshops and conference presentations that we hosted. In previous projects like The Laboring Self, which was installed at the DMA and in the lobby of the California State University, San Marcos library, we transformed library patrons into a participatory-art public. In a moment of transformation, Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation reinvented the pedestrian action of hand washing, like turning an ordinary visit to the library into an encounter with art. Similarly, it reinvented the ubiquitous act of hand washing into a live-for-Zoom performance.

We are intrigued by transformation, and this shows in the way we accompany a project though many different forms before moving on to something completely different; our work is iterative by nature. A Kitchen of One’s Own germinated from our project An Archive of Unnamed Women, which pairs images of unnamed women from the New York Public Library with textual selections from fiction by women about women (“Archive of Unnamed Women”). That project engaged the archive and sought to reclaim these women from the obscurity of history. A Kitchen of One's Own took us into the kitchen, exploring what it means for women to labour and create in kitchens, both in ease and amid the duress of sexism and sexual harassment, through videos paired with text. With the pandemic arising in the U.S. and Europe in Spring 2020, we were swept up into the shared confusion, and like so many, we sought to make sense of a moment so catastrophic. We turned to writers of the past who had endured plagues and epidemics to help us gain clarity, creating a video and text synthesis that again allows for speculative meaning-making through fortuitous pairings. Presently, we are evolving this project from pandemic to enlightenment, with an iteration that takes up as inspiration the Instructions for the Zen Cook by thirteenth century Zen Master Eihei Dōgen Zenji. Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation is an iterative work arising from the tensions of a time in transformative upheaval. It was one way we sought to make sense and bring people together in a playful experience that was beyond easy understanding.


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burrough, xtine, and Sabrina Starnaman. “Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation.” Electronic Literature Organization Virtual Engagement Session. July 2020. <http://stars.library.ucf.edu/elo2020/live/events/12>.

———. “Excerpt of ELO Virtual Engagement, ‘Epic Hand Washing for Synchronous Participation’ (2:15).” Vimeo, 19 May 2021. <http://vimeo.com/xtineburrough/elo-zoom>.

———. The Laboring Self. Dallas Museum of Art Center for Creative Connections. Oct. 2017 to Jan. 2018. <http://dma.org/visit-center-creative-connections-community-projects/laboring-self>.

———. Epic Hand Washing in a Time of Lost Narratives: Text Dataset. Mar. 2020. <http://drive.google.com/file/d/1hSV-9l_ETTOruBpI-NCOChjuPtprlZue/view>.

———. An Archive of Unnamed Women. Browser-based project. Oct. 2019. <http://visiblewomen.net/unnamed-women/index.html>.

burrough, xtine, and Sabrina Starnaman, with Technical Direction from Dale MacDonald. “A Kitchen of One’s Own.” The Photographers’ Gallery, 1-28 Oct. 2020. <http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/akitchenofonesown>.

———. “Epic Hand Washing.” Vimeo. <https://vimeo.com/showcase/4611141>.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Gallimard, 1947. <http://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/the-plague.pdf>.

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