Hannah Cullwick (1833–1909) was a domestic servant working in households across London during the Victorian era. In the 1960s it was revealed that she also produced an incredible – and incendiary – array of experimental visual and textual materials over the course of her working life. Her diaries, letters and photographs document her labour as well her sadomasochistic relationship with Arthur Munby, a bourgeois gentleman fascinated by working (as in working-class) women. In many of the images Cullwick posed as herself, drawing attention to her powerful muscles, large calloused hands and the black bracelet she work to mark her servitude to Munby. In others she appeared as a bourgeois lady, a young male and a ‘blacked-up’ slave. Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz describe her performances as ‘class drag’, noting that the staging of these SM scenarios played out at the level of wage labour.
In Normal Work Cullwick’s extraordinary historical photographs are set against a short film in which the performer, Werner Hirsch, re-enacts her poses. This process of interweaving re-situates her story into the queer cultures of the 21st century while also drawing connections with contemporary work. Dressed as a Victorian lady, Hirsch discusses his own experiences as a bouncer, cleaner and furniture mover but asserts that he would still like to become an academic. The artists relate Cullwick’s crossings (she secretly married Munby) to current neoliberal conditions: while her queering disrupted conventions and offered social mobility, it also brought precarity (when she refused to play the bourgeois woman, Munby cast her out of his house). Today, this combination has become structural to a flexibilised labour market which operates through desire and demands the ability to adapt. Now, as then, the price of failure is high.