In 1969, the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles composed a Manifesto for Maintenance Art. In it Ukeles addresses the status of ‘maintenance work’ across public, private, and domestic contexts. By ‘maintenance work’ she means, in the broadest possible sense, the cumulation of errands and tasks that must be repeatedly performed to maintain systems and facilitate development. She categorised maintenance work into ‘personal’ tasks such as washing, ‘general’ tasks such as cleaning the home or repairing roads, and ‘Earth’ tasks such as removing pollution or preserving habitats, although she sees all three as intimately connected.
Ukeles considered maintenance tasks as performative processes within her creative practice, deliberately focusing on the act of doing them in order to place emphasis on their value. Ukeles suggested that for any form of personal, artistic, economic, or social development to occur, tasks which aim to preserve and maintain are essential. She thus sought to elevate their status from unrecognised labour to art. By considering personal domestic maintenance alongside societal and environmental maintenance, Ukeles sought to connect these fields and emphasise the particular role of women in relation to maintenance work.
A proposal for a show, entitled, Care, was included within the manifesto. The hypothetical exhibition would entail Ukeles the artist living, or simply working at the museum, performing maintenance tasks required for the general upkeep of the art museum. By performing these tasks within a museum environment, she sought to make viewers re-imagine these procedures as art. The exhibition would display transcripts of interviews between her and members of the public from a wide variety of classes and occupations discussing their perception of maintenance tasks. The questions included:
- what do you think maintenance is?
- how do 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?’
To address the concept of Earth maintenance in the exhibition, Ukeles suggested that the contents of a sanitation truck should be brought to the museum regularly to be reused for the purpose of art. In addition, she proposed for a container of polluted air, a container of polluted water from the Hudson River, and a container of ravaged land to be brought to the museum to be ‘maintained.’ The containers would be de-polluted and rehabilitated, demonstrating the importance of environmental maintenance tasks.
This show was never produced. However, Ukeles continued to navigate these ideas and themes into further works including Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (1973). This performance, documented though black and white photography, depicted Ukeles washing the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum. During the period, these jobs were often reserved for workers who were of ethnic minorities. Ukeles, a white woman artist, highlighted the importance of these jobs and those who perform them.
Documentation of Ukeles’ Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside
Ukeles explored similar themes in an eleven-month performance entitled, Touch Sanitation (1978-9), where she shook the hand of all 8500 employees of the New York Department of Sanitation. Throughout this performance, Ukeles would spend 8-16 hours visiting sanitation workers, known as ‘sanmen’. During this time, she would interview and shadow them as they performed their maintenance tasks, as well as documenting them with photography, conversation transcripts, and a map of locations.
Ukeles would thank each worker individually, saying, ‘Thank you for keeping New York alive!’. Through this ritualised process, she sought to place a greater emphasis on the important role that the sanmen played in dealing with New York’s waste, quite literally helping to keep the City alive by safely removing the city’s potentially harmful waste products.
During this period, Ukeles was appointed the official artist in residence of the Sanitation Department of New York, a position that she continues to hold to this day. The residency was unpaid but she was granted access to studio space and materials and was able to work directly with the employees of the department. One of the works that came out of this relationship was Touch Sanitation Show (1984), an exhibition that included displays of department equipment alongside a performance piece that invited visitors to erase the ‘bad names’ that sanmen had been called. She also produced a multitude of large sculptures that re-used the department’s waste and discarded equipment, including a ‘ceremonial arch’ made from discarded rubber gloves.
Her more recent work has focused further on the ‘Earth’ category of maintenance work described in her manifesto, while continuing to create connections with other social issues and collaborate with the sanitation department. Flow City (1983-95), installed a visitor centre in a fully functioning waste management facility, allowing visitors to view New York City’s waste being loaded onto barges for transport and ritualising this procedure. Ukeles’ sought to help visitors think deeply about the properties and aesthetics of the ‘waste’ material, encouraging them to reconsider their relationship with disposability.
Landing (2008-) has been instrumental in the ongoing redevelopment of the ‘Freshkills’ landfill site on Staten Island into the largest new park in the City. The aim is to provoke viewers to consider their position with regard to the relationship between the natural world and human waste that the site represents by encouraging the more active way of seeing that we associate with appreciating art. The work is fully accessible to the general public and seeks to be interconnected with rather than distinct from daily life.