IN iconography for the socially-conservative 1950s one household chore is readily associated with women – that of ironing.
We’ve all seen the classic advertisements depicting a “dutiful” housewife diligently ironing her husband’s shirts with the latest household appliance.
The world has certainly changed 60 years on. However, two Byron Bay women are re-appropriating that traditional household stereotype as a means of opening up dialogue about modern gender politics.
The Ironing Maidens – Melania Jack and Patty Preece – are a performance art duo that have adapted irons and ironing boards into electronic musical instruments.
Their innovative inventions and experimental musical collages have taken The Ironing Maidens to Germany’s Fusion Festival and Australia’s Falls Festival, and secured a $15,000 grant from the Australia Council of the Arts.
The Ironing Maidens’ upcoming Australian tour will be their most expansive yet.
Throughout January the pair are touring regional NSW, performing at actual laundromats, including The Edwards’ The Coin-Up in Newcastle West, to promote their latest single Electro House Wife.
The tour is not simply a musical performance. Jack and Preece will also conduct an electronic music production workshop to teach practical skills and the history of women in the genre’s development.
“I think the laundromat is an interesting experience for the audience, it’s not a traditional music venue,” Jack says. “Certainly not a traditional electronic music venue.
“People have a lot of old memories of laundromats. I know myself when I’m touring or travelling or I haven’t had a washing machine, there’s times when I’ll sit in a laundromat waiting for my washing, the smell of the soap, the hum of the machines, it’s a quite a smoothing environment.
“So I think that gives the audience a fairly different experience.”
Jack and Preece formed The Ironing Maidens five years ago after being disillusioned by the lack of information being taught about women in their contemporary electronic music production course.
They subsequently discovered the work of British composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram, who is credited with inventing an early synthesiser.
“So when we found her work we were like ‘wow that’s so cool, but how come we haven’t heard about this is our own music education’?” Jack says.
“So we started digging around deeper and found there were a lot of women working during that time. So we started looking at the ‘60s and what was happening.
“There was a lot happening for women in the household that was being marketed, so we were already thinking about that, I was cutting together a music film clip for our band at the time called Suburbia that had some ‘50s footage of a woman ironing.
“I had her bashing the iron on the ironing board to the beat of the music. I was caught by that idea and I asked Patty ‘could we make an iron that can do that?’
“So we started on this tangent of turning irons and ironing boards into instruments, so it ended up on its own ironing thing.”
Physically turning irons into synthesisers and equipping them with triggers for samples proved challenging.
Modern irons are mostly made from whole molds and cannot be pulled apart and fixed. Therefore Jack and Preece had to source older irons to rebuild. The heavy bases also had to be laser cut so they could be modified for music.
Jack says the instruments were also designed so they could be played in the traditional sliding motion of irons.
“That’s been really nice, having that limitation and trying to keep the music based around the movements that are traditional to irons,” she says.
“So for instance it’s effected how we’ve set up the triggers on the ironing boards so that our movements create those sounds to imitate real-life ironing. The sliding along and the stamping and pressing. It’s great to have parameters.”
Electro House Wife is musically a homage to early Chicago house music, featuring samples from ‘50s household product advertisements.
The track, which is the first single off their debut EP due for release later this year, also explores gender politics.
In the song Jack sings, “We don’t need rules. We don’t need to be told what to do. We can have a housewarming party anytime we want. So throw down that tea towel, slam shut that stove, nobody is eating until we’ve had dessert because this is our house.”
On their latest tour The Ironing Maidens will perform in traditionally conservative country towns like Wagga Wagga and Griffith, but Jack expects their messages of gender equality will be positively met.
“We’re both originally from regional areas so that’s why we tend to gravitate towards them,” she says.
“We really love it out there. We find we’ve performed this show in so many random places around the world and even in places where their language is completely different and we find that ironing itself is quite an iconic thing.
“People tend to have a lot of feelings around ironing. People are quite polarised; they either love it or really hate it. So it’s great to get conversations going and get people to engage with their own personal feelings about ironing.”
The Ironing Maidens perform at The Edwards’ laundromat, The Coin-Up, in Newcastle West on January 30.