There is an unsung correlation between the perpetuity of upkeep and society’s reliance on it. The work that never ends is the work that keeps households, communities, the whole world economy afloat. The continuity of menial housework, the circuitousness of tidying up a city that will inevitably get dirty again, the everlasting quality of tasks that are done almost instinctually, begrudgingly but without comment, and repeated forever—like Sisyphus rolling a boulder uphill, or weekly laundry—is the same stuff that fuels the human enterprise. It’s also the work that is the least valued, and the least visible.
The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles understood this implicitly, and was both maddened and fascinated by it. She made it the central tenet of her art, first in her feminist works in the 1960s that centered around domestic tasks, and then years later as artist-and-resident at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, a position she invented and then held for over three decades. She calls her work maintenance art, a term she introduced in her 1969 ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art,’ which was originally intended as a proposal for an exhibition called Care. At the time, Ukeles was both an established New York artist and a new mother, and her manifesto relays the frustration she felt at the double standard that repetitious and tedious tasks are valued in ‘avant-garde’ art, but not in household work. She makes a distinction between ‘development’ and ‘maintenance,’ with the former representing “pure individual creation; the new; change; progress; advance; excitement; flight or fleeing,” and the latter being what preserves, sustains, renews or repeats those things. The manifesto also includes the line that most often gets repeated in discussions of her work—both for its catchiness and, I’m assuming, for its prescience: “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”
‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’ was and is a feminist rallying call, a proclamation of the necessity of domestic labor to the same society that sees it as worthless. In the five or so years after she wrote it, Ukeles put on a series of domestic performances that explored this paradox. In 1973, she spent a day on her hands and knees scrubbing the entry steps, plaza and exhibition galleries of the Wadsworth Atheneum, in performances entitled Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Inside and Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Outside. At the same museum, she performed Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object (1973), cleaning a vitrine that housed a mummy and labeling it a ‘dust painting.’ The images of Ukeles crouching and cleaning in the middle of the grand institution that had invited her to show her work complicates the relationship between ‘maintenance’ and ‘development’ as she defines them in her manifesto: It refuses to make them distinct from one another.
In ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art,’ Ukeles does draw a parallel between the ‘lousy status’ of private domestic work and low-paying public maintenance work. But it wasn’t until seven years later, in 1976, that she widened the scope of her performances to include people who do that work professionally. For an exhibition called Art < > World, for the Whitney, put on in a branch of the museum housed in a skyscraper in New York’s Financial District, Ukeles wrote a letter to the building’s 300 maintenence workers. She invited them to think of one hour of their regular shift as art, rather than work. Over seven months, she systematically made her way to each worker, took their picture with a Polaroid camera and asked them “Is this work or is this art?” Whatever they answered, she accepted and recorded on the blank bottom of the Polaroid picture. For the exhibition, she taped up a checkerboard of the photos that spanned across an entire wall.
In her essay In Appreciation of Invisible Work: Mierle Laderman Ukeles and the Maintenance of the “White Cube,” Miwon Kwon writes of the Hartford Wash project that, ‘Ukeles’ cleaning frenzy exposes the museum’s appearance of neutrality and purity as artifice—an artifice that requires the repression of (the signs of) bodies and time.’ With the Whitney show, Ukeles once again exposed the maintenance that sustains artistic creation, yet in this work, ‘(the signs of) bodies and time’ she reveals aren’t her own. Testament to Ukeles’ compassion and genuine belief in the value of reaching others—one of the most rewarding qualities to come through in all of her work—is that she doesn’t give these other bodies less treatment or attention than she did hers. As Ukeles recently recounted at a talk at the Queens Museum, in making her rounds one night during a midnight shift, a worker welcomed Ukeles by saying she had been waiting for her for weeks, then snuck her into the building’s restricted areas. Ukeles deliberately saw the people who were supposed to be the invisible and silent guardians of the building’s functionality, and they responded to her in kind. “‘Where’s that artist?’ I would hear on the walkie-talkie,” recalled Ukeles. “‘Where is she?’”
The worked, titled I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, was written up by David Bourdon in a review for the Village Voice, which concluded with a joke aimed at New York City, at the time deep in financial crisis. “Perhaps,” Bourdon wrote, “the Sanitation Department could think of its work as performance art, and replace some of the budget, which had been cut, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.” Ukeles liked the idea. She sent the review to the city’s sanitation commissioner at the time, who promptly called her and asked, ‘How would you like to make art with 10,000 people?”’
Ukeles’ first piece with the DOS is now her most famous. Her 1979-1980 Touch Sanitation Performance, is a work she performed over the course of 11 months, zigzagging across New York’s fifty-nine districts. She met with each of the city’s 8,500 sanitation workers, shook his or her hand and said “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” Ukeles pantomimed their actions, and talked to the workers about their frustrations. In interviewers afterwards, she said that she learned the sanitation employees were angry, they felt dejected and unseen, their worth unrecognized. “As a feminist, I recognized something in that,” she told the Village Voice in 2002. “The fury they felt, I knew about as a woman who was seen as invisible. The maintenance work that I did had no cultural sound. It didn’t exist.”
In her recent book Freedom Is A Constant Struggle, the activist Angela Davis reframes the concept of intersectionality in social movements as a connection of struggles rather than identities or experiences. “What I think is most interesting is the conceptualization of the intersectionality of struggles,” she writes. “Initially intersectionality was about bodies and experiences. But now, how do we talk about bringing various social justice struggles together, across national borders?” Intersectionality continues to be a weak point in the feminist movement today as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Ukeles was an active part of the Second Wave. Her work makes the viewer reconcile the fact that, as an individual, she is part of a larger system, and that system requires collective energy in order to be shared and maintained. The repetitious tasks that make up maintenance work are not just self-sustaining cycles, they are part of an interdependent ecosystem that sustains the structures of society and the lives therein. They are repeated in harmony with the undervalued tasks of others, who also toil behind the scenes. Those connections can’t easily be made unless they are first illuminated; Ukeles does this not only by acknowledging the maintenance work that goes into a functioning society, but also by acknowledging the people who do this work, the people on the margins.
In making maintenence art, Ukeles also makes maintenance beautiful and valuable. ‘Development and Maintenance: The sourball of every revolution;’ she wrote in her manifesto in 1969, just after the height of the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements. Even as maintenance is considered something separate from human creation—a distraction from it at best, ignored or scorned as ‘lesser than’ at worst—its persistence is the very quality that makes it a necessary part of more ‘important,’ or more valued, work. Almost 50 years later, her words still resonate, as does her body of work, declaring identity politics and class struggles inextricable from one another. And as we have gone deeper into the Anthropocene, her work has moved beyond the human in its examination of maintenance as art: From the mid-1980s to 2013, Ukeles staged a series of Work Ballets around the world, in which excavators, dump trucks and street sweepers become graceful beings, bowing to commune with the ground, regarding each other curiously, or weaving in-between each other in a choreographed street dance. The machines shape our environment through maintenance, creating our world and our relationship to it. Her work goes beyond the people doing the work and makes the actual labor itself—from tools to actions—a piece of art, of both recognizable aesthetic and social value. This lens positions Ukeles as the Great Personifier, bringing a touch of humanity to that which is most overlooked and undervalued.