Mierle Laderman Ukeles: “Everything I do is Art is Art”
After the birth of her first child in the 70s, performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles noticed that the public’s perception of her as artist was overshadowed by her new role as “mother”.
As a response to that shift in the external perception of her identity, Ukeles wrote Manifesto for Maintenance Art, a work that instates work to care, cook, clean and look after others as creative strategies and sources of art.
Ukeles work challenges the boundaries between what we consider to be “work” and what we consider to be “artwork”.
Her ambitious project, Touch Sanitation, saw Ukeles spend almost a year meeting 8500 sanitation workers in the New York City Sanitation Department. She shook hands with each of them and said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” She kept meticulous records of her conversations with workers, and charted her activities on a map. Conversations with workers were later used to bring to light the negative stereotypes her culture has of people who preform care and maintenance roles.
Image from Touch Maintenance by Merle Laderman Ukeles
Performance Duration: 11 months, at least 1 to 2 8-hour/per day work shifts. With 8,500 sanitation workers.
Since 1977 Ukeles has been artist in residence (unsalaried) for the New York Department of Sanitation.
Here’s her brilliant Manifesto:
M A N I F E S T O
FOR MAINTENANCE ART 1969!
Proposal for an exhibition “CARE”
MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES
A. The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:
The Death Instinct: separation; individuality; Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing; dynamic change.
The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations; equilibrium.
B. Two basic systems: Development and Maintenance. The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?
Development: pure individual creation; the new; change; progress; advance; excitement; flight or fleeing.
Maintenance: keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change; protect progress; defend and prolong the advance; renew the excitement; repeat the flight;
show your work—show it again keep the contemporaryartmuseum groovy keep the home fires burning
Development systems are partial feedback systems with major room for change.
Maintenance systems are direct feedback systems with little room for alteration.
C. Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.)
The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom.
The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay.
clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again—he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.
Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art. “We have no Art, we try to do everything well.” (Balinese saying)
Avant-garde art, which claims utter development, is infected by strains of maintenance ideas, maintenance activities, and maintenance materials. Conceptual & Process art, especially, claim pure development and change, yet employ almost purely maintenance processes.
E. The exhibition of Maintenance Art, “CARE,” would zero in on pure maintenance, exhibit it as contemporary art, and yield, by utter opposition, clarity of issues.
II. THE MAINTENANCE ART EXHIBITION: “CARE”
Three parts: Personal, General, and Earth Maintenance.
A. Part One: Personal
I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order).
I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also,
(up to now separately I “do” Art.
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art. I will live in the museum and I customarily do at home with my husband and my baby, for the duration of the exhibition. (Right? or if you don’t want me around at night I would come in every day) and do all these things as public Art activities: I will sweep and wax the floors, dust everything, wash the walls (i.e. “floor paintings, dust works, soap-sculpture, wall-paintings”) cook, invite people to eat, make agglomerations and dispositions of all functional
The exhibition area might look “empty” of art, but it will be maintained in full public view.
MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK
B. Part Two: General
Everyone does a hell of a lot of noodling maintenance work. The general part of the exhibition would consist of interviews of two kinds.
1. Previous individual interviews, typed and exhibited.
Interviewees come from, say, 50 different classes and kinds of occupations that run a gamut from maintenance “man,” maid, sanitation “man,” mail “man,” union “man,” construction
worker, librarian, grocerystore “man,” nurse, doctor, teacher, museum director, baseball player, sales”man,” child, criminal, bank president, mayor, moviestar, artist, etc., about:”
-what you think maintenance is;
-how you feel about spending whatever parts of your life you spend on maintenance activities;
-what is the relationship between maintenance and freedom;
-what is the relationship between maintenance and life’s dreams.
2. Interview Room—for spectators at the Exhibition:
A room of desks and chairs where professional (?) interviewers will interview the spectators at the exhibition along same questions as typed interviews. The responses should be personal.
These interviews are taped and replayed throughout the exhibition area.
C. Part Three: Earth Maintenance
Everyday, containers of the following kinds of refuse will be delivered to the Museum:
-the contents of one sanitation truck;
-a container of polluted air;
-a container of polluted Hudson River;
-a container of ravaged land.
Once at the exhibition, each container will be serviced:
purified, de-polluted, rehabilitated, recycled, and conserved by various technical (and / or pseudo-technical) procedures either by myself or scientists.
These servicing procedures are repeated throughout the duration of the exhibition.