Mierle Laderman Ukeles (b. 1939) is a maintenance artist. Since 1969, the year she wrote Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!, later published in the pages of Artforum, she has devoted her practice to demystifying the invisible labor that undergirds society. “Maintenance is a drag,” she wrote in the manifesto, “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.” In 1978, Ukeles became the artist-in-residence at the New York City Sanitation Department, a position she continues to hold. Her monumental piece Touch Sanitation (1978 – 1980), for which she spent a year traveling around the city, shaking hands with every sanitation worker and thanking them for keeping the city alive, is a touchstone for socially engaged art. She is currently at work on a project for Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, pursuing the first artwork to be permanently installed at what was once the largest landfill in the world.
On the occasion of the first solo survey exhibition of her work—Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art currently on view at the Queens Museum—Ukeles sat down with Maya Harakawa to discuss her early training as an artist, motherhood, and making art with 10,000 people.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: I began studying for my MFA at Pratt. I studied everything, except ceramics.
Maya Harakawa (Rail): Why not?
Ukeles: Because there are too many rules. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I thought. You have to do everything a certain way. There shouldn’t be rules in art school, you should try everything. I still believe that.
Rail: What was it like to be in art school in the early ’60s?
Ukeles: It was already past Abstract Expressionism, so Pop Art, assemblage, and all sorts of fabulous stuff was going on. But there were many teachers that couldn’t handle the change. And a lot of them couldn’t handle women. I was in a sculpture class at Pratt and the teacher told me that women shouldn’t be in sculpture.
Rail: Did he say why?
Ukeles: No, it was obvious.
Rail: What ideas or artists were you responding to at that point?
Ukeles: There were other artists there that I messed around with, like Ralph Ortiz (Raphael Montañez Ortiz); he tore up a bed, he was a destructivist. Ralph had this theory that we are innately violent but that, if violence is sublimated into art, then we can be peaceful. He had this bedspring that he cut and ripped and MoMA bought it! While we were in school. I was never a destructivist because I didn’t believe the theory, but I was very interested in psychoanalysis. Freud, Jung, and Norman O. Brown. We flipped out over them. And Marcuse was important to me as well. That was the beginning of student movements organizing all over the place. The administration at Pratt was very fearful of that.
Rail: Did you have influential teachers at Pratt?
Ukeles: I didn’t learn from a lot of my teachers because they just wanted their students to copy their work, to work like them. But my first teacher in graduate school was Robert Richenburg, who was just marvelous. He spoke about freedom. He said that the artist has to be free and I just lapped that up. The most important experience that I had in graduate school was all-out freedom. That’s really why I wanted to be an artist. In Richenburg’s class, I started doing this wrapping, pouring, and stuffing, and he saw that that was my first original artwork. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew more than anyone else about it. That was my work. But the administration told Richenburg that he had to stop me from making them. He would exhibit them around the graduate studio and they told him to take them down. They said I was making pornography and that I was oversexed. I thought it was abstract! [Laughter.] I mean, they’re pretty visceral, but I really did think they were abstract. He ignored the administration and he got fired. They didn’t kick me out but they made me extremely unwelcome. After that whole incident, I came back for one semester, but I couldn’t stand being there so I left.
Rail: How did that experience affect how you saw yourself as an artist?
Ukeles: I almost fell apart. But I knew I was onto something very important. The work had value because it was my work.
Rail: Your early work was object-based, but after you left Pratt your work became less and less material. So much so that your Manifesto for Maintenance Art has been subsumed under the rubric of conceptualism. Do you see a through line here, or was there a complete departure?
Ukeles: I’m glad you asked me that. After I left Pratt I moved back home to Colorado and I kept making work. I bought three hundred pounds of stuffed animals and rags and I started stuffing and stuffing. I kept making works that were bigger and bigger. I could work a whole day stuffing them until the form was as full as possible. I would stuff, and stuff a little bit more, and a little bit more, and then the whole thing would explode—literally explode: a hundred pounds of stuffing would be lying on the ground. I had to worry about cleaning up, but I didn’t want to take care of anything. Basically the materiality became a burden: instead of a means of expression it became something I had to take care of.
Rail: Your relationship to materiality started to change.
Ukeles: This was during the Vietnam War, so materiality had a whole bad aspect to it. Using resources suddenly became suspect, because that’s how we ended up in Southeast Asia. Everything became suspect, really: institutions, making things, consumer objects; capitalism itself—moving, moving, moving, using everybody’s resources.
After the stuffings, I started working on these large inflatable pieces. The idea was that I could blow them up, and then, when I wasn’t showing them, I’d deflate them. Because if I could fold them up and put them in my jeans, I wouldn’t have to take care of them. I was really serious about that. It was ridiculous. I spent four years trying to make them. Eventually, I contacted Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) for help because I wanted to make them electromagnetized so the forms would inflate and deflate. I wanted them to breathe, to expand and then contract. E.A.T. hooked me up with a physicist. I showed him all my plans and he told me that the project had to be underwater. Why? Because electromagnetism falls off radically after a few inches and I wanted these things to be big. So I said to him, “You know it’s very hard to see art if it’s underwater.” He looked at me like I was crazy and I thought: this isn’t going to work. [Laughter.]
The air art was about freedom. Free, free, free—no maintenance, no nothing. But they kept leaking. I was able to make one piece after four years of work, but when I took it outside the whole thing cracked. I wrote to these plastic companies and got free plastic, but they neglected to tell me that the material wouldn’t hold below a certain temperature. So all of these air art symbols of freedom had terrible maintenance problems.
Rail: As you were working on these pieces, you had your first child.
Ukeles: Yes, I became a maintenance worker because I became mother. The thing about maintenance is that if you decide that something has value, then you want to maintain it. You have to do a series of tasks to keep it alive. I loved that baby; I fell madly in love with that baby. But I didn’t know anything about being a mother, about how to make sure that my child was healthy and robust. Whether it’s a child, an institution, or a city, it’s all the same: if you want them to thrive, you have to do a lot of maintenance—a whole lot.
Rail: What is the difference between maintenance and labor?
Ukeles: That’s a great question. Maintenance is always circular and repetitive. Labor could be like building a highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific: once it’s built, it’s done. There’s labor in maintenance, but not all labor has to be repetitive.
Rail: How did motherhood affect you as an artist?
Ukeles: It was a time of crisis for me. I mean, I wanted that baby. It wasn’t that someone pushed me into having a baby. But all my heroes, the artists I was trying to be like—Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko—didn’t have to deal with the maintenance of motherhood. Here I was changing diapers, saying to myself, “Where are you, Jackson? Where are you, Marcel?” I felt like they abandoned me. They had nothing to say to me. They wouldn’t be caught dead doing what I was doing as a mother. I felt like I was falling.
Rail: Did you identify as a feminist by this time?
Ukeles: Oh yes, but I wasn’t active because I was busy. I had gone through hell from Pratt, hell, and here were these women speaking out. I needed them. I also faced a classic maternal conundrum after my children were born. I divided my life in half. My husband, Jack, was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania at that point, and we hired someone to take care of our daughter for half the week. So half the week I would be home with the baby and half the week I would be in my studio. But when I was in my studio, I kept thinking: is she really paying attention to the baby? And when I was with my baby I kept thinking: when am I going to do my work? It was like this hurricane, which never ceased, nor has it ceased for my daughters. They’re still saying the same stuff.
One day, it was October 1969, I had an epiphany. I said to myself: You’re the boss of your freedom. You’re not a copier of Marcel, who can’t help you anymore. If you’re the boss of your freedom then you have the right to name anything art. Marcel gave me that right. So that’s how I turned my maintenance work into maintenance art. That was it. It was a way to keep my life together. I said to myself: I’m an artist. I need to be who I am, and this is who I am.
Rail: Was writing the Manifesto for Maintenance Art a way of legitimating this decision to yourself?
Ukeles: Yes, ma’am! And I did it in one shot.
Rail: Why was the manifesto form appealing to you?
Ukeles: It was provocative. I was saying, “Hey! It’s over, folks. We’re in a new time.” Of course, after I wrote it I started rethinking everything, everything. I had this very fancy education, I graduated from Barnard College, and I was so stupid. I felt like people would automatically listen to me because I was well educated. But after I became a mother, people would meet me and they would have nothing to ask me. Basically, I fell out of a certain class and moved into another. And when I looked around, I saw that most of the people in the world were also in that class, that they were workers too. I felt also that the feminist movement, which I was counting on to help me, wasn’t all that interested in women service workers.
Rail: There was a classist dimension to the politics.
Ukeles: Totally. One hundred percent.
Rail: But you still participated in feminist art activities. Lucy Lippard eventually became aware of your work and exhibited it.
Ukeles: The manifesto was published in Artforum in 1971. Jack Burnham included it in an article about the end of the avant-garde because I explicitly call out the limits of the avant-garde. After the article was published, Lucy Lippard calls me up on the telephone [and says], “Are you real? Or did Jack Burnham make you up for his article?” Isn’t that great? She thought he concocted it. It turned out we lived a few blocks away from each other, so we got together. She invited me to be in c. 7,500, a show of women conceptual artists that she curated in 1973. It started at CalArts, and eventually traveled all over the country.
Rail: Did that show feel like a legitimating moment for maintenance art?
Ukeles: Yes, definitely. But I got sort of jealous that my work was traveling around so much. I wanted to go too. I mean, I was still stuck in the house all day, and my work was traveling around. So I called up Lucy and I told her that I wanted to do some maintenance art activities, some performances. She gave me the names of the curators at the sites. I contacted them and they said sure. I went to several places and I did about fifteen performance works. For example, I performed these Maintenance Art Tasks at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1973. I washed the steps of the museum; I dusted the vitrine of a mummy and called it a painting; I locked the doors to the museum—all as maintenance artworks.
Rail: And you kept making maintenance art after that.
Ukeles: In 1976, I participated in a show at the downtown Whitney called Art-World. All of the art in the show was about real world systems: Gordon Matta-Clark did a piece about a new water tunnel in New York; Douglas Huebler was trying to photograph everyone in the whole world; Helen and Newton Harrison made a huge map work, stuff like that.
When I visited the site for the first time I was shocked to see this humongous office building. That was when the downtown Whitney was at 55 Water Street. It’s actually one of the largest office buildings in the world. Because of my interest in working with maintenance in society, I had been looking for a skyscraper, because a skyscraper obviously needs a lot of maintenance, right? So when I saw the building, I flipped. Given the site, the abundance of maintenance workers, instead of making a work in the museum, I proposed a work with all the workers in the building. That was I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Everyday. There were three hundred workers in that building, so I wrote to all three hundred of them inviting them to participate in a performance work with me. The premise was simple: I invited them to think of their regular maintenance work as maintenance art, to pick one hour everyday and in that hour, whatever they were doing, to think of it as art instead of work. The Duchampian freedom to rename something, to switch something, that’s what I invited them to do. It wasn’t about me projecting something onto them; that’s exactly what I was trying to get away from.
Rail: What did you learn from working with the maintenance workers?
Ukeles: I heard a lot of stories. One time, a guy came up to me and told me, “I just washed the lobby floor, and someone spit on it.” If anybody did that to me I would have had a fit. So asked, “What did you say?” And he said, “We’re not allowed to say anything.” There was this sort of Apollonian order, a law of absolute order that produced the idea that maintenance happens all by itself. It erased the human behind the work. The standard of the building was that the building was always clean, always perfect.
Rail: That’s because maintenance work maintains social order. The labor that is done on a material level produces hierarchies between people: between the person who does the maintenance and the people who ignore it, or worse.
Ukeles: The people who do physical work, they are put in a different layer. You have to understand this about maintenance work: the workers, especially at night, they would be cleaning all these fancy offices and I would go with them so I could photograph them working. I didn’t care about the bosses or anything in the office besides the workers, but the management got very nervous. They were afraid of what I might see. I’m sure I saw a lot of sensitive stuff, but I didn’t care about any of it. But the thing was, these maintenance workers, they saw these things all the time! But you see, they didn’t count, management wasn’t afraid of what they saw every day because they were only there to clean. So I got this huge understanding of this social order, of a priority of order.
Rail: There’s an issue of visibility in all of this: what work gets seen, what people get seen. It seems like your use of photography really brought that to the fore.
Ukeles: I used a Polaroid camera to take everyone’s picture. There’s a little white space at the bottom. I made these labels “maintenance art” and “maintenance work” and depending on what people said they were doing, I’d put the appropriate label on the Polaroid. There could be two people working together, doing the same task, and one might say that they were doing maintenance work and the other that they were doing maintenance art. Whatever they would say to me, I would accept it. The point was that they were the decision makers. That’s what I felt the contribution of the art was, allowing these workers to take control of themselves. Even though they were trapped in this really constraining system of order, for that one hour they got to decide what they were doing.
Rail: What happened when you exhibited the work?
Ukeles: When the show opened I gridded off a wall in the gallery, and in the beginning all I had was a grid of pencil lines. That made me very nervous. There were all these other hotshot artists, and I had nothing! But little by little I would take these pictures, label them as either maintenance work or maintenance art, and start mounting them on the wall. And over the course of the exhibition I mounted seven hundred and twenty photographs of decisions. It ended up being a picture of the human side of work, a portrait of the building that showed that the work was human. The most wonderful thing was that the workers started coming to the museum to check up on me, making sure that I made good on what I said to them. The museum staff told me that the workers never came into the museum because they felt like they didn’t belong there. And they were very critical readers of the work, which I loved. I remember one worker in particular, after seeing the photo I took of him in the men’s bathroom, he came up to me and he said, “You missed the most important thing. You didn’t get me cleaning underneath the rim of the toilet. That’s the work.” I loved that. He was really looking at the work and he wasn’t afraid to tell me that I got it wrong. That’s all an artist really wants, for people to really focus on the work and to respond to it.
Rail: How did people respond to the work?
Ukeles: David Bourdon wrote a review of the Whitney show in the Village Voice. He wrote: “Maintenance workers of the world unite! Now you can call your work performance art.” This was at the height of the fiscal crisis. People were getting laid off all over the place. The bankers wanted New York to declare bankruptcy, it was really dire. As a joke, Bourdon wrote, “Perhaps the sanitation department should call its work performance art and replace some of its budget with a grant from the NEA.”
I didn’t know where my garbage went, I didn’t know who the commissioner of the sanitation department was, but when I saw this review I got to thinking. I sent a Xerox to the commissioner and a day or so later I got a call from commissioner Anthony Vaccarello’s assistant asking me if I’d like to make art with 10,000 people. When I did the piece at the Whitney, I really thought that an artist couldn’t work with more than three hundred people. So this got me really excited. I said, “I’ll be right over.”
Rail: What was the commissioner like? I find it so crazy that someone in his position would think that working with an artist was a good idea.
Ukeles: There was a feeling of desperation around the sanitation department. When I spoke to Vaccarello he said to me, “Get to know the sanitation workers, they’re terrific people.” And he asked one of his assistants to drive me all over the department. He could have said, “Go to this one garage and find out what’s going on in this garage.” That’s one way to think about a system, taking a sample. But he didn’t say that. I was lucky in the first moves were big and compassionate.
Rail: But the commissioner was soon replaced.
Ukeles: When Ed Koch became mayor he appointed Norman Steisel to be the new commissioner of Sanitation. Steisel felt very strongly that the workforce was completely misunderstood, that even though the department needed a lot of improvement, the blame was coming down on the workers and that was wrong. And with my passion for workers that I brought with me from the original notion of maintenance art, the whole feminist spiel, there was this meeting of minds. Steisel approved a set of proposals that I gave him and he gave me access. He sent out memos to his executive committee, all of them, every branch of the department. He told them, “There’s this artist working here. I’m approving these projects. Help her.”
Rail: Was Touch Sanitation the first project?
Ukeles: I gave him proposals for three projects: Touch Sanitation, a work skills festival (which turned into the ballets), and artworks for landfills. I flipped over the landfills. That was the time of classical land art, like the earthworks movement. But I could never see those works because you had to travel so far to get to them, often in a private plane. It was sort of a private, macho thing. But I saw these open acres of land and I thought, “Oh my god! These could be sites for urban earthworks.”
When I came to the sanitation department in 1976, I had been doing this work about maintenance for a while, since 1969. But this was big! This was the biggest maintenance system I could ever hope to work with. And it was pure. Also it was all males at that point and I actually thought that was really cool. These are the housekeepers of the city, and they’re all men! So as a feminist, with this all-male workforce, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to shatter so many preconceptions about labor, to just blow them up. I hit a limit of western culture that actually talks about democracy, but is really just about class.
Rail: Were you aware of the class of the workers? They must have been middle class.
Ukeles: They were middle-class people. Most people aren’t aware of that. I liked that: they are middle-class and so am I. So many middle-class people feel invisible and that’s what really pissed me off the most. I would say that most of the people that worked in sanitation came from high-skilled technical backgrounds, but that didn’t guarantee them a steady job. They wanted to buy into the middle-class dream of America, a steady job, get a mortgage, get benefits, and that’s why they went into sanitation. The thought was: if I get into a steady job, I’m set. That’s why people were so hysterical. They didn’t want to pick up garbage.
Rail: They wanted security.
Ukeles: That was the trade-off. They wanted security and it was caving in on them.
So that was the first proposal and Norman Steisel really agreed with me. He felt that it was worth taking a risk. I think he felt that if it didn’t work out they could say thank you and just move on. We started with Touch Sanitation. The department provided me with a driver and a guide for a whole year. Thank god they did, otherwise I’d still be wandering around Queens looking for the sanitation workers! I piggybacked on their genius: they know where everybody is. I mean, think about that! They know where you are because they have to, or else they can’t find your garbage, right? And they know if you’re doing okay or if you’re not doing okay, because they see your garbage, and you can learn a lot about someone from the contents of their garbage. So I piggybacked on their brilliant operations system and built an itinerary of ten sweeps around the city, over the course of which I went to every single sanitation facility and met all of the workers.
Rail: And you completed this project over the course of a year?
Ukeles: I thought it would take three months. It took eleven. The reason that Touch Sanitation was first was that I felt like I needed to develop some credibility. I didn’t know anything about sanitation, so what right did I have to open my mouth? That’s why I needed to face everyone in the whole system: it felt like a much better way to introduce myself.
Rail: You set up a logical system with a set of defining parameters, set the system into action, and let it run its course. There’s a level of absurdity that’s undermined by the fact that you actually achieved the seemingly unachievable task that you set for yourself. What happened after you finished Touch Sanitation?
Ukeles: From the beginning my plan was to have a Touch Sanitation show. It took four years to get it together because I wanted to have the show at a transfer station and in my gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery in Soho, at the same time. The whole thing just about did me in! It was a bad idea to do them simultaneously, but it was logical because I felt that both perspectives were necessary to really do the art justice. The two sites required two different ways of seeing.
Rail: Your work with the sanitation department continues to this day. What changes have you seen in your forty years working there?
Ukeles: The commissioner of sanitation happens to be a woman right now, and the deputy of sustainability is a woman, too. Their big project is zero waste to landfills by 2030 and they both talk about circular economies. Circular economies means there’s no out; you move material throughout the city but it’s always in a flow system. That’s what I’ve been talking about since 1969! As a mother, I was involved in maintenance practices that were circular, repetitive, necessary, and as a feminist I learned from that work and turned it into art. I learned these lessons of circularity because of how pissed off I was, working in my kitchen or changing diapers, and now they’re becoming city policy.
MAYA HARAKAWA is a Ph.D. student in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the social media manager of the Brooklyn Rail.