Labor Relations

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: “Touch Sanitation Performance,” 1979–80, performance with 8,500 sanitation workers across all fifty-nine New York City districts. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York. Photo Marcia Bricker.


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, known for championing those who do uncelebrated work, has served the NYC Sanitation Department since the 1970s—but to what effect?

ON JUNE 13, 1974, Mierle Laderman Ukeles was on her knees in front of A.I.R., the noted New York feminist nonprofit, cleaning the sidewalk with rags in the performance Washing. Photographs of the event vary from austere images of the artist’s hands against the coarse and grimy craquelure of the sidewalk to wider-angle scenes in which her body is framed by the street and the small audience outside the gallery. Ukeles had complicated the status of the site by marking it off with pages of a text—specifically a passage on elevating the profane to the holy—written by Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a Jewish mystic and early Zionist. Was the place now a public sidewalk for which the gallery was legally responsible under city law, a semiprivate space of religious praxis, a setting for documentary photos, or some combination of the three?

Then a young mother, Ukeles had a few years prior issued a strident statement titled “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition ‘Care.'” In opposing “maintenance” to the fiction of “development,” she presented a critique of the avant-garde and a crucial feminist intervention in the theory of labor. Ukeles wrote: “My working will be the work.” The manifesto took a close look at the home as well as the studio, the so-called originality of the avant-garde, and the ideas that structure the distances between them.

Ukeles is currently the subject of a sprawling retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York. It is a homecoming of sorts, as the Queens Museum (where she was previously included in the 1992 exhibition “Fragile Ecologies”) is among a small number of organizations considered to be socially engaged that have welcomed her work in the past several decades. Others include A.I.R., Creative Time, and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources (which would later become PS1), where she was included in the 1987 exhibition “Out of the Studio: Art With the Community,” curated by Tom Finkelpearl—now commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

But the defining relationship of Ukeles’s career has been outside the art system as it is generally imagined. Since 1978, she has been artist-in-residence at the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), an arrangement prompted by David Bourdon’s joking suggestion at the end of a 1976 Village Voice review of “Art<>World,” a group exhibition at the Whitney Museum’s branch downtown. The show included the five-week performance I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, her first effort at applying the logic of her manifesto to the conditions of alienated labor in the municipal context, the latest shift in the passage of her work from the home (where the early “Maintenance Art” projects took place) to art institutions. She asked the staff of maintenance people for the building in which the show was held to imagine their work as art for an hour each day.


EVEN AS UKELES continued to pursue other strains of thought in her work, in 1977 she designed her first project directly incorporating laborers from the Department of Sanitation—known colloquially as “sanmen.” While the concept of sanitation had appeared early on (the second part of her 1969 manifesto included “the contents of one sanitation truck” among the types of refuse she wanted delivered to the host of her proposed exhibition), the Voice review of the “Art<>World” show had recommended that Ukeles apply for a National Endowment for the Arts grant on behalf of the budget-beleaguered Department of Sanitation, and she did exactly that. This inaugurated a new phase in her practice that continues to this day, and to which a considerable amount of the Queens Museum exhibition is dedicated: from the extensive documentation of projects like “Touch Sanitation Performance”—an eleven-month endeavor begun in July 1979 in which Ukeles shook hands with some 8,500 DSNY employees and said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”—to the show’s most traditionally monumental object, Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers IV (2016). The latter work, an archway composed of used work gloves from various city agencies, frames the entrance to the museum’s central atrium, itself devoted in large part to Ukeles’s ongoing work on the massive redevelopment of the Fresh Kills landfill. She contributed to the draft master plan of the Freshkills Park project, which will be the site of her Percent-for-Art commission titled Landing, a project consisting of a viewing station and two earthworks. (She has worked on two other landfill redevelopment projects, one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the other in Israel.) 

Ukeles’s oeuvre thus tilts closer to the municipality than the museum, despite her foundational performances at such spaces as the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut, 1973) and her early critical support from Jack Burnham, who in 1971 lauded her for identifying a way out of the avant-garde’s dead-end of “revival, unacceptable iconoclasm, or the deliberate presentation of nonart,” 1 and Lucy Lippard, who included the artist in the key traveling exhibition “c. 7,500” in 1973. Some of the physical objects occupying six galleries and the central atrium at the building in Corona Park came to—and in some cases had to be refurbished by—the museum after decades of storage in myriad Department of Sanitation facilities, including a trailer at the Fresh Kills landfill. This adds an archival dimension to Ukeles’s institutional heritage. Two further exhibition components, Ten Sweeps Light Path (2016) and Trax for Trucks and Barges II (1984/2016), occupy the Queens Museum’s famed Panorama—a scale model of the city commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair—and confirm Ukeles’s engagement with the city’s infrastructure. They are, respectively, an LED installation indicating the ten “sweeps,” or routes Ukeles followed in the making of “Touch Sanitation Performance” and a thirty-minute sound piece, played thrice daily, consisting of conversational audio Ukeles recorded in the course of “Touch Sanitation Performance,” as well as the rumblings of DSNY equipment recorded in 1984.

In one gallery, three different objects (variously composed of bundles of cloth, string, netting, and organic matter) relating to 1974 performances are labeled “restored 2016,” having deteriorated in storage when the trailer was damaged and the contents were exposed to the elements. “For a long time most of my work that was brought from the landfill was quarantined in the back of the [Queens] museum in steel containers,” the artist told me regarding the transfer and rehabilitation of those works. “I used to say I am almost in the museum, but I’m still in the backyard.”

It’s a striking, even theatrical image—objects from the landfill allowed to infiltrate the museum only after “quarantine.” Yet this institutional sacralization of profane “garbage,” in either material or discursive form, operates differently in art than it does in labor management. Ukeles’s process takes on a particular character in the long shadow of the urban crisis of the 1970s, its effect on organized municipal labor—particularly at the Department of Sanitation—and the concomitant emergence of today’s neoliberalism.[pq]The institutional sacralization of “garbage” operates differently in art than it does in labor management.[/pq]For what once operated as a critique of the gendered division of labor underwriting avant-garde logic was recoded into a managerial logic when it passed into the realm of municipal labor relations. In other words, it valorized labor at a time when labor’s ability to structurally valorize itself was being dismantled.  

Writing for this magazine in 1985, Robert Storr noted potential flaws in this effort. Reviewing “Touch Sanitation Performance” ‘s two-part “grand finale” exhibition (at Feldman gallery and on a Hudson River pier), he observed that “the workers were evidently at least as bemused by Ukeles’s naivete as they were ‘touched’ by her concern for them—and some were plainly embarrassed, suspicious and bored.” The issue was not bad intentions, but rather that the artist “brought absolutely no sociological understanding or political conviction to her project.” 2 It would be inaccurate to label the life of “Maintenance Art” at the Department of Sanitation as the work of an artist-apparatchik peddling conciliatory fictions. There is value to Ukeles’s original interventions, especially insofar as the 1969 manifesto and early “Maintenance Art” projects brought a feminist critique to the theory of the avant-garde—a critique Ukeles codifies with her second major statement, the “Sanitation Manifesto!: Why Sanitation Can Be Used as a Model for Public Art” (1984), which adapts the concept of “Maintenance Art” to its new and eager hosts. Sanitation, the manifesto states, is something that renders “all of us . . . implicated and dependent,” as producers of waste, as customers of DSNY services, and as “co-owners” of DSNY as a public system. These are all interesting and accurate observations, but all too often the perceptiveness of Ukeles’s thought on matters of gendered labor, artistic production, and institutionalization seems to recede when it comes to the actual production and institutionalization of her own work. 3


TWO PRINCIPAL FACTORS illuminate the shift of Ukeles’s work into the space of municipal administration and the annexing of her art to new forms of management and industry. The first is the labor crisis that engulfed the country along with the financial crisis that devastated New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following a period in which real wages declined, inflation and unemployment rose, and racial inequality continued, labor agitation was on the rise. The period saw the highest level of strikes in decades. Sanitation workers walked off the job in 1968 and attempted to again in 1971. New York City’s private-sector creditors essentially forced the city into “technical bankruptcy” in 1975, with the effect of dramatically curbing the power of the city’s municipal unions, and thousands of municipal employees were laid off. This prompted two DSNY strikes in rapid succession, culminating in a wildcat strike involving 10,000 sanitation workers protesting the dismissal of some 3,000 of their colleagues. 4 As David Harvey has written, “Much of the social infrastructure of the city was diminished and the physical infrastructure (for example the subway system) deteriorated markedly for lack of investment or even maintenance.” 5 The wall text of the exhibition predictably narrates this episode with the official rhetoric of inevitable austerity, referring to “a decade of rising expenditures and a drop in the tax base” that caused a “budget deficit,” which necessitated the “elimination” of “thousands of municipal positions.”

The second illuminating factor is the history of modern artists’ complicity in systems of labor and industry, beginning with the Constructivist figure of the “worker-inventor” in the Taylorist Soviet factory. 6 Curator and writer Kari Conte draws out this connection in her contribution to the Ukeles monograph Seven Work Ballets (2015). But the duplicitous status of the artist who manages labor does not trouble Conte. Even as Ukeles’s ballets, in which she choreographs the movements of sanitation vehicles and barges, “suggest that through repetition of work, bodily gestures are codified, managed, and governed,” Conte finds a harmonious validation of labor in the balletic outcome: “By initiating a non-productive artistic activity . . . Ukeles dissolves the polarity between intellectual and manual labor. Manual labor, in fact, requires skillsets that take years to master, contrary to widespread ideas about the simplicity of learning such labor.” 7

If only such polarities were so readily dissolved. The crux of Ukeles’s intervention is the gendered distinction between public and private spheres. In The Sexual Contract (1988), political theorist Carole Pateman considers how the public sphere emerges from private and uncompensated work in the home, which underwrites capitalist productivity in the “impersonal” economic world. Pateman’s ideas are developed by Helen Molesworth, who has brought Ukeles’s work into conversation with that of feminist peers Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly, and Martha Rosler, identifying the particularly trenchant nature of Ukeles’s subversion of high modernist forebears in, for example, her painterly deployment of the mop in her Wadsworth Atheneum performance Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside. Molesworth asks, “Do we laugh knowingly at Ukeles’s ‘floor paintings,’ with their explicit evocation of the grand painterly gestures of Jackson Pollock, or do we feel a tinge of shame at the public display of a woman who cleans up after us?” 8


AS MUCH AS Ukeles, in her best work, succeeds in de-neutralizing the avant-garde artist in the studio, or the woman in the home, she nevertheless fails to come to terms with the problems inherent in institutions. An illustrative exchange between her and the artist Doug Ashford takes place in the Fall 1997 issue of Documents, which was devoted to Ukeles’s work:

MLU: Is it arrogant to say that I am making such a place neutral?

DA: Yeah, because to say that the museum is neutral is to reinforce the hidden ideology and politics that the museum embodies. Come on, we know museum collections not only reflect values of the dominant culture, they institutionalize them.

MLU: But this exhibition [“Uncommon Sense” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA] attempted to say that the museum could be something else besides the sum of all those things. That it could be a place that’s filled with voices of the people coming into it. A meeting place, a forum.

DA: I’m very worried about this conversation. 9

Appreciating Ukeles’s work requires one to consider her vital intervention in the concept of the avant-garde while maintaining a deep skepticism of the state and those institutions willing to act as its proxy. Ukeles has trenchantly engaged the conceptual parameters of creative labor, and the very real matter of regimes of gendered difference, even if we find few traces in her work of the emergent labor-organizing practiced by such well-known predecessors as the Art Workers’ Coalition (1969–71) and the Guerrilla Art Action Group (1969–76). 10 To hold the work accountable to the question of labor is not to require an idle kind of criticality or “correct” politics, or to lapse into a left-melancholic dismissal of the importance of feminist critique. 11 But we must still acknowledge the ideological tide that carried her career as an artist-in-municipal-residence forward. Though this was clearly not Ukeles’s motivation, her conciliatory presence at the DSNY took on an undeniable strategic importance after the historic evisceration of organized municipal labor under the mayoralty of John Lindsay, a condescending patrician whose policies and personality the unions found repellent.

Ukeles herself has acknowledged at some level the misalignment between intention and appearance in her work. Later on in the interview with Ashford, she states that her work “is understood most often as community fix-up assignments or self-esteem workshops. But it’s so much more complicated than that. See, we assume as artists that the fullness of perception that we invest in making an artwork in all its detail is, or will be, reciprocated by the viewer.” 12 But the sanitation worker is not only a viewer but also the subject of this work. While the exhibition displays a brochure for “Touch Sanitation Performance” in which the sanitation union, along with other municipal authorities, endorses the project, a letter from the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association displayed in another gallery indicates that the organization declined to fund her activities. Ukeles’s “fullness of perception” assumes a reciprocal relation between artist and viewer that simplifies or elides the ideological character of her mediation of the sanitation workers’ alienated labor. She was, after all, an unpaid, nonunion worker operating with what amounts to a managerial mandate. The strictures that Ukeles functioned under emerge forcefully in a gallery devoted to the 1984 “Touch Sanitation Project” show, where a list of “defamatory names and phrases” that sanmen submitted to Ukeles is displayed, its redactions by municipal administrators prior to the exhibition—particularly of racial epithets—demonstrating that DSNY was invested in managing the way that their artist-in-residence aired the grievances of their employees. The retroactive disclosure of this censorship in the space of the museum is at odds with the notion that, at least at the time of the “Touch Sanitation Project” show, the relationship between the work’s production and reception could be reciprocal rather than instrumental. 13

Pierre Bourdieu has argued that the idea of art and culture serving as a “sacred” refuge from “profane” economic realities is naive and fallacious—like theology in other periods, an imaginary anthropology obtained by denial of all the negations really performed by the ‘economy.'” 14 The beguiling peculiarity of Ukeles’s work lies in its seeming dissolution of the boundaries between valorized and devalorized labor, sacred and profane. But the systems that undergird those false distinctions are more durable than the conceptual gestures meant to dissolve them; as evinced by Ukeles’s work with municipal labor, affective recuperation can be a requiem for solidarity. At its most literal, “Maintenance Art” cheerfully enjoins workers to bolster production at the exact historical moment of disenfranchisement under a new logic of capital—in this, it is less liberation theology than neoliberal mysticism.


CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art,” at the Queens Museum, New York, through Feb. 19.

MOSTAFA HEDDAYA is a writer, editor, and doctoral student in the department of art and archeology at Princeton University.