Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Official Artist-in-Residence at New York’s Department of Sanitation since 1978. A survey exhibition of Ukeles’s 50-year career was presented at the Queens Museum September 2016–February 2017.
Co-founder of MOS Architects, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and author of Maintenance Architecture, published by MIT Press in December 2016.
Program Director at the Urban Design Forum, now Studio Manager at the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity.
February 12, 2018
Avery Hall, Columbia University
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
No artist has drawn more attention to maintenance than Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Her Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969) reframed maintenance work in the home, in the workplace, and in public as a form of creative practice. As artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, she shook hands with every employee of the Sanitation Department over the course of a year. She later orchestrated ballets of workers, trucks, and barges in New York and cities around the world. Here, she speaks with Hilary Sample, architect, founding principal of MOS, associate professor at Columbia GSAPP, and author of Maintenance Architecture, as well as Caroline Bauer, Studio Manager at the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and former program director at the Urban Design Forum, where she conceived and led the Maintaining series.
Hilary Sample: Mierle, your work has been especially important to me for thinking about the subject of maintenance as it relates to architecture. Your work crosses multiple social conditions: from the home, where daily cleaning takes place, through to projects in and about the city—I’m thinking here of the projects with the New York City Department of Sanitation workers, from you shaking their hands (Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-80) to cladding the garbage trucks (The Social Mirror, 1983).
It was an epiphany of sorts when I first read your writings and viewed your projects. In speaking about maintenance, your work frees us from the constraints of what we understand—and has become ingrained in our social structures—about what it means to clean versus maintain something, be it a house or the city. It challenges the rhetoric of cleaning and the domestic, and our thinking about who does what in society. Your work tries to break out of these stereotypes and challenge the status quo.
Caroline Bauer: One of our Fellows cautioned us about using the word “maintenance” too much in this series; it can be too dry, too technical. She recommended the phrase “caring for,” as a good alternative. Do you think a shift in the language we use would make this more of a popular topic?
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: In 1969, when I wrote Manifesto for Maintenance Art, I used the word “maintenance” because it was so stripped out of our culture. I did name the other half of the manifesto, which was a proposal for an exhibition, “CARE.” I always saw these two terms as inextricably linked, but the ambition of the Manifesto was to change the culture itself. That needed a system-wide overhaul. “Maintenance” was more system-wide.
HS: As I was beginning to look at this subject of maintenance, I had spent the majority of my architectural education looking at the domestic and housing, especially around issues of women and working and living in the city. So, when I saw your project I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), it had a profound effect upon my thinking. Here is woman who, on her own, with no support either physically or financially, enters the museum and cleans it. She photographs it, she writes about it, she make small drawings of it, assembles it. Without question your project is an act of “caring for,” but by using the word “maintenance” you’re putting this performance into the public, scaling it beyond the domestic and what we might typically associate “caring for” with.
CB: Mierle, this has a lot of resonance with your piece One Year’s Worktime at the Queens Museum.
MLU: Yes, that documented every eight hour shift—one whole year of work time. What does work time mean? If you are the boss, you have the right to tell the worker: this is what you do for eight hours. After eight hours, they leave, and you no longer have a claim on them. That’s the claim you have on this human worker.
This is a maintenance philosophy—and what is it? It’s about time. It is saying, “we make the choice to live in the present moment”. And I think that is an architectural premise: we remove the leftovers from yesterday, so that when we walk, we walk on the surface of now. This is a philosophy that has become a huge infrastructure system. It costs billions of dollars to remove yesterday, and it’s actually an architectural decision.
HS: To expand on your point about living in the present moment, it’s complicated for making architecture. Architects struggle with how to deal with contemporary conditions, be it the environment, climate, social, economic, etc. This is very different to what was previously built, not only materially but philosophically. With Modernism, architects tried to create buildings that look eternally new. And we still operate with that premise that buildings should perhaps be around forever and that their appearances are always effortlessly kept up.
Architectural education reinforced the philosophy of being effortlessly and eternally new—we only need to think of those luminous Ezra Stoller photographs, among others, that exhibit modern buildings as exquisite objects devoid of life and time. All of the work done by the maintenance worker is never included. It is invisible effort. As architects we continue to buy into that by not being more inclusive with the figures that we include in our illustrations of buildings and cities.
CB: There is also a practice, in State and City budgeting, of deferred maintenance—restricting money for infrastructure maintenance in order for something to eventually become a capital project. To me, that’s a negative example of living in the moment. It allows us to say, “We’ll wait until another time to repair this cantilevered portion of the BQE.”
MLU: Deferred maintenance. What the hell does that mean? Until it goes over the edge?
CB: In a way. Until the costs get so high they become a capital project.
MLU: Moving from the expense to the capital budget is like moving between two different philosophies of the material world.
CB: Hilary, this reminds me of an Andy Warhol quote you included in your book: “In New York you have to clean so much, and when you’re finished, it’s not-dirty. In Europe, people clean so much, and when they’re finished, it’s clean.” Do you think that New York’s dirt, deferred maintenance crisis, et cetera, is part of our charm? Or do you see a different vision for our future?
HS: I do think there is a particular character to New York and its wornness, contrasted with its new neighborhoods. Living amongst brownstones it is easy to see how quickly materials break down.
In terms of the future, learning from other cities’ best practices and applying them is critical. If we were to think about the city in time, the work necessary to its upkeep really shouldn’t be thought of later but now, and as part of the challenge of development. These are important lessons for students just starting in architecture. Architects have been so caught up in technology, and learning about software, programs, and digital media, which are important, but should not replace an intense understanding of the physical world and all its properties. New York could do much more through a variety of scales of intervention.
MLU: I did a performance work in Rotterdam, a city with a huge presence of heavy industry. In the section offices of the sanitation workers there—where they come to get dressed, have lunch—each worker has a closet, and the closet is heated because it often rains. They’ll come in for lunch, they’ll hang up their raincoat or jacket, which is wet. And by the time they are finished with lunch, they go back out on the street with dry clothes.
Second, they have a huge amount of glass in their lunchroom. Beautiful glass walls, modernist drapes. I think the furniture was by Alvar Aalto. And lunch was hot. And they had a lot of bird cages. If Sanitation workers from New York saw this, they would faint right on the floor. Maybe that’s what Andy was talking about. Something about their structure of labor—there was such a high level of respect of how they were treated. And how the sanitation workers in Rotterdam responded to the work ballet we all did together was so light-hearted—more than any other country I did it in.
CB: New York is the richest city in the world, next to Tokyo. So it’s curious to me why we aren’t able to do things like that.
HS: While researching maintenance, I was working as an architect at OMA in Rotterdam. Living in the Netherlands presses upon you their extraordinary accomplishments in maintaining pretty much everything around you, from the water, land, buildings, waste, to social structures, and so on.
MLU: Rotterdam could be filthy because of all the industry.
CB: Right. It’s an expression of what we, culturally, place value on.
I’m also hearing from both of you that a focus on maintenance highlights all of the underlying issues that otherwise go unnoticed, such as labor. For example, Mierle, in your piece I Make Maintenance Art Every Day, you’re looking at the maintenance staff of 55 Water Street and revealing how important their work is. I was touched by how you had two openings for that piece, including one for the people that work the night shift.
MLU: Yes, the opening was at midnight. Their work is at night, but most of the people that work in that building work during the day.
I invited 300 maintenance workers to consider one hour of their regular work “maintenance art” if they decided to participate. And they each wore a button saying “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day,” for the five weeks of the exhibition.
At that time, the Whitney had a branch on the second floor, but I spent days and night shifts—I practically lived in that building during that period—going around with a Polaroid, and I would take a picture of a person doing their regular, everyday work. But then I transferred over the power to name to the worker. I showed them the picture of what they were doing, and I asked them to name the image. The definition of what the viewer saw was not up to me, but rather up to the workers.
Over 700 of these decisions were mounted on the wall in the museum, and the workers in the building said that they felt like they had a place in the museum for the first time. They were a very critical audience. I loved that. The power of naming moved from me to them, and that was really a collaborative effort. That’s the building. You don’t know who these people are until they tell you.
CB: I think an explicit focus on maintenance
brings out those stories that are otherwise totally invisible.
MLU: Absolutely. That was a big motivator for me: to get out there, and see who these people are—to make their work transparent.
CB: It reminds me of another work, Washing (1974), outside AIR Gallery on Wooster Street. You were just scrubbing, tirelessly, the grit and grime off of a New York City sidewalk.
MLU: Very dirty! So dirty. My rags were just shredding, and I realized that I didn’t have enough material to keep going.
CB: And then this man comes over with an armful of rags.
MLU: The super. You know what he said to me? He said, “Here.” That’s all he said. And then I could keep working. He didn’t say, “Why is this art?” or “What are you doing?” He said, “Here.” That blew me away. At that moment I knew I wanted to work with others. The completion of a work couldn’t come from just me, it also had to come from this man who said: “Here.”
HS: As you were talking, I came up with three ideas for new architecture studios with my students. Have you ever done one of those?
HS: Would you be interested?
HS: Visiting the housing studio at Columbia would be wonderful! You could just show up and talk to them.
MLU: I would love to do that. Because I think it’s really urgent for people to learn how to talk to each other.