Last summer, handwritten thank-you notes to service workers appeared across digital ad displays in New York City subway stations and in Times Square. Their upbeat message — “Thank you for keeping NYC alive!”— might seem like any number of window signs or corporate ads offering lip service to “essential workers,” erstwhile invisible to most city dwellers. But the tribute, designed by artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, isn’t new. Reviving a phrase Ukeles coined in the late 1970s just after New York’s fiscal crisis, these notes follow five decades of her art-making focused on the devalued, yet crucial, labor of reproducing material and social life.
“Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time,” Ukeles wrote in her 1969 “Manifesto for Maintenance Art.” Comparing the tedium of housework to low-waged service labor, trash collection, and other types of environmental maintenance, Ukeles’s text reminds us of the powerful feminist framework that social reproduction — which connects care work to societal and ecological scales — offers for confronting the coronavirus crisis. Today’s context also renews a dilemma at the heart of Ukeles’s practice: What do we make of art that symbolically acknowledges some of society’s most degraded work, precisely at the moment that this work, and the social infrastructures it supports, are most jeopardized?
As a young artist, Ukeles was preoccupied with the problem of scale. “To feel in the gut, to gather up in the head, a whole system at one time” was her objective — in other words, to render the magnitude of social reproduction, so immersive as to be invisible, into apprehensible form. Ukeles’s signature work, “Touch Sanitation” (1978–80), made palpability its project. “See these numbers—feel them,” Ukeles wrote in a 1977 notebook, prefacing a list of New York City sanitation statistics: 18,000 collection trips per week; 27,000 different routes to disposal sites; 5,835 miles of streets and 969 miles of highways for cleaning and snow removal; 23,000 tons of garbage created every day; and 10,000 sanitation workers to collect and dispose of it. For nearly a year, Ukeles shadowed garbage collection routes, ceremonially shaking the hands of 8,500 municipal workers to thank them for “keeping our city alive.”
This phrase had particular gravity in the wake of the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis, when social services were beleaguered by deep budget cuts. That summer, after Mayor Abraham Beame announced the anticipated layoffs of tens of thousands of city workers, garbage collectors staged a two-day wildcat strike that left 48,000 tons of trash out on the streets. And this was no isolated incident: Without adequate state resources for maintaining them, roads, subways, and other infrastructures were crumbling. Between 1976 and 1978, the City University of New York abandoned free tuition; an arson epidemic, exacerbated by defunded fire departments, decimated the Bronx; and a mass electric blackout left most of the city powerless for 25 hours at the peak of summer. As Wages for Housework organizers argued, care work, whether at the level of the household or the city, often remains invisible until it is neglected.
“Touch Sanitation” has come to be known mostly through photographs of the young, smiling Ukeles dressed in workers’ coveralls, posing with a multiracial group of working-class men. The cheerful cast of these images has led to recent critiques of the work as an artwashing, lending the city government a conveniently optimistic guise just as it was slashing welfare and instituting neoliberal anti-labor policies. These critiques denounce Ukeles’s nominal position as the artist-in-residence of the Sanitation Department as, effectively, a public relations stunt.
This skepticism is valid. Our own moment constantly reminds us of the pitfalls of a politics that stops at recognition. Last May in New York, geico-sponsored jets sky-typed “We salute our first responders” over the city, just as my homebound, upper-middle-class neighbors enthusiastically banged pots each evening in support. Meanwhile, New York’s nurses wore garbage bags as makeshift personal protective equipment, and countless other venerated “essential workers” were forced to risk virus exposure because they could not afford to stay at home.
But it’s a mistake to discredit “Touch Sanitation” entirely. Ukeles’s intervention was hardly opportunistic; a decade before, under different historical circumstances, her 1969 manifesto emphatically compared women’s work to civic sanitation. Her structural approach to “maintenance” counters some of the worst tendencies of visibility politics. Ukeles’s art translates a personal, everyday experience of gender-based oppression, which for many women includes uncompensated household chores and child care, to a broader analysis that encompasses other areas of working-class struggle. Rather than siloing them according to gender or racial identity, “Touch Sanitation” brings housewives and “sanmen,” or garbage collectors, together under the common rubric of maintenance. The work was not activism, nor did it purport to enact transformational change. It did offer a potentially powerful act of representation, however, by demonstrating often elusive interdependencies among domestic, civic, and ecological systems, and in doing so, suggesting unexpected shades of solidarity.
“The sourball of every revolution,” Ukeles explains in her manifesto, are those who ask “Who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” Yet we ought to remember, as Silvia Federici and other socialist feminists argue, that reorganizing the labor of social reproduction is key to transforming it from “a stifling, discriminating activity into the most liberating and creative ground of experimentation in human relations.” The work of caring for the systems that keep us alive is quiet, tedious, and unglamorous, but it can be worldbuilding. Today’s burgeoning mutual aid networks are testament to this: By consistently providing food and other essentials to communities left high and dry by corporations and the state, they are not simply stopping a gap but generating new grassroots models of interpersonal support and solidarity. Now more than ever, we shouldn’t think of care work as an afterthought — it’s the revolution itself.
Kaegan Sparks is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she is writing a dissertation on Ukeles and the politics of social reproduction. She is also an organizer and co-founder of the mutual aid network Queens Care Collective.