Mierle Ukeles is a fascinating artist, and has been the resident artist of the New York Department of Sanitation since the 1970s. Let me repeat, she is the artist-in-residence of a sanitation department. Such an interesting feat could only be accomplished by the amazing Ukeles, who has in her decades-long career as an artist dedicated herself to the issues of waste, sanitation, and maintenance labor as not just technological and environmental issues but also social ones that connect all of us.
In 1969, Ukeles wrote her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, a response to the frustration she felt due to the lack of appreciation or acknowledgment of the people behind the maintenance of our society. Since then, she has been combining her art with aspects of democratic participation by viewers to engage them in open dialogue regarding ecological and social issues affecting the community. As part of a series of public performances called Maintenance Series, Ukeles performed a piece called Washing in 1974, in which she got on her hands and knees and washed the steps and floor of an art gallery in New York City. In this way, she juxtaposed the stereotypical role of women doing domestic chores with the male-driven art society and its expectations for a pristine environment.
One of her most famous pieces, Touch Sanitation, was another performance piece and was her first piece as the artist-in-residence of the New York Department of Sanitation. In this piece, she traveled to different sections of New York City and shook the hands of the city’s more than 8,500 sanitation employees. In the process, she also recorded the stories of the workers, including their fears and public humiliations, and meticulously recorded her activities on a map. Additionally, she always told each worker, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” This piece was an attempt to draw attention to the maintenance of urban ecological systems as well as to challenge the use of derogatory language toward “garbage men.”
In another of her more famous works, Flow City, Ukeles redesigned the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station visitor center. At this marine transfer station, garbage is loaded onto barges before being transported to a landfill. The visitor center, which is still open today, is a walk-through installation that provides a participatory experience for the community to see the social, political, and environmental issues of New York’s waste removal and relocation collide. Flow City is a space with three separate views of the city and its urban ecology: a beautiful panoramic view of the city, a picture of large barges filled with trash, and a large bank of video monitors. The videos playing on the monitors were contributed by scientists, ecologists, artists, and others in an attempt to inform people about urban ecological problems. Having these three distinct views provides visitors with a way to question their choices and lifestyle, and their impacts on the environment (their urban environment as well as the river system on which the barges rely).
Ukeles’ work has brought environmental justice to the forefront, forcing her community to stop and take a critical look at the social and ecological implications of maintenance and waste. With the participatory nature of her work, she has pushed the public to reexamine the stereotypes of those whose work “keep the city alive” while recognizing the effect of their consumption on their environment.